Dick Frizzell is without doubt one of the most influential artists working in New Zealand today. This collection of paintings, spanning 30 years of his practice, illustrates the depth and breadth of his oeuvre, as well as revealing the common threads that link them. While we are asked to work in order to see the continuum that links Backyard Painting (Detail) [Axe] with Down by the Lake or Egyptian Style Tiki, the subtlety with which Frizzell utilises his considerable talents to link and cross-link his paintings becomes obvious upon closer observation.
Frizzell is acutely aware of the cultural cross-references he employs and is willing to dip into a range of methods to draw the viewer’s attention to the issues that underlie his works. In Duelling Barrows (1998) the realistic depiction of the utilitarian (proletarian?) wheelbarrow is placed on a colour field rather than a lawn and is further ‘elevated’ by its proximity to a landscape that bears the stylistic hallmarks of the Fauves: thick outlines, saturated palette, stylised forms. Frizzell deliberately juxtaposes the everyday object and the art reference to create tension and vigour in the triptych, confronting the viewer with the age-old question “Yes – but is it art?”
This same tension occurs with Frizzell’s use of recognised art genres – the still life, the landscape, the portrait, the nude. As a landscape painting, Burnt Stump encompasses multiple painterly techniques; a delicately worked copse of trees would not be out of place in a painting by Turner, but the energetic daubs of green in the foreground and the starkness of the stump, rendered in rich blacks and browns, owe more to the painters of the early twentieth century. Rich with commentaries, Frizzell plays with the landscape genre, questioning the traditional view of art’s history. He renders the Kiwi vernacular in oils - the viewer is literally ‘on this side of the black stump’ - and the stump’s central dominance in the work necessitates consideration about issues of land use, agriculture and the environment with which the artist is concerned.
Similarly multi-layered and literally turning its back on traditional portraiture, Down by the Lake eschews the face and gaze of the sitter for Frizzell’s image of the archetypal Kiwi bloke: one who works with his body, who is physically bowed down, and, one imagines, who is little concerned with the art world or its ilk. Despite this, we cannot help but read the artist’s coded cultural references to the idea of an Antipodean Atlas weighed down by the weight of the world, or to a southern Saviour entering a baptismal lake, or indeed to that other archetypal man, Adam, after being cast out of Eden and condemned to toil ever after. Frizzell is acutely aware of the power of these art historical tropes and intentionally invites questions about their relationship to the subjects of his paintings.
Nowhere in this collection is the artist’s interest in the power of the image and its manipulation more evident than in Egyptian Style Tiki and Ochre Tiki. From their first outing in a landmark 1992 exhibition, Frizzell’s series of tiki works turned the New Zealand art world on its head. As a Pakeha refiguring a Maori cultural icon (albeit one that had been bastardised and commercialised) Frizzell instigated a torrent of political, cultural and social debate that changed the way New Zealand looked at its art traditions. Painting tiki in the style of the ‘greats’ of twentieth century art – Miro, Picasso, Braque – he engendered discussions about cultural (mis)appropriation, bicultural cross-fertilisations, art as design, and the politicisation of New Zealand art to name but a few. It was crucial that these issues began to be addressed and Frizzell continues to do this.
Given the rapid and complex societal change that has occurred in New Zealand over the last thirty years, the questions of Kiwi identity, culture, environment, and art are ever relevant. As a practising artist, Dick Frizzell is firmly ensconced in a role that asks him to query, to needle, to invent, to reflect. That he still performs this role with dedication and assurance underscores Frizzell’s commitment to his art, his ideas and his environment, and we are much the richer for it.