Dick Frizzell: The Painter
It’s funny how an established artist’s moment can seem to arrive suddenly second time around with an exceptionally appealing – almost unbelievable – narrative logic. After the remarkable debut and a few sold-out shows come the post-sensation wilderness years, including perhaps an overseas sabbatical or two, and then, after years of clawing back critical acclaim with an ever-increasing body of work, it is suddenly time for a Major Publication.
And then the artist is triumphantly everywhere again – on radio, in magazines, in galleries – while the vast body of the artist’s work is duly praised through the book which is, without exception, beautifully produced.
Dick Frizzell’s story to date fits, more or less, this trajectory: after years of being somehow everywhere and yet nowhere, of being widely lauded yet somehow overlooked as well, comes his book. True to the script, it is a book that will be savoured – drifted through and pored over – for years to come.
With good reason: it has been designed, superbly, with the peculiar demands of its subject in mind – its subject being not just Frizzell the artist, the painter, as declared in its title, but also the wide-ranging, eclectic, almost random nature of his now vast catalogue of paintings and prints. While Hamish Keith remarks in his foreword how the sense of “some story unravelling frame by frame is a potent layer in Dick’s work”, he also, perhaps unwittingly or perhaps purposely, describes the way the book itself works, revealing the life of an artist obsessed with imagery through its sumptuous piling of visual details.
Every page in this book is illustrated; many with multiple reproductions, heaped one upon the other in the manner of a scrapbook, a much-loved family photo album, or, perhaps more appropriately for Frizzell, a comic or graphic novel.
In Frizzell’s life, and throughout this book accordingly, images from comic books are a constant. He describes how, probably like many children who grew up to be artists, his first exposure to art was through the line drawings and garishly coloured frames of comics: Beano, Batman, Mandrake the Magician, and, most importantly of all, The Phantom. Covers and pages from these are reproduced here in full colour and interspersed not only with early originals by the young Frizzell but also black and white family photos – the family home in Hastings, the boy-artist beside a horse or on a home-made go-cart. A childhood at once familiar and particular is thus evoked through this richness of imagery.
Then the borrowed images suddenly change gear: Frizzell arrives at art school, and his teachers temporarily overshadow, albeit somewhat uneasily, his childhood heroes. Gone are Batman, The Phantom and Dennis the Menace, and taking their place a few choice names in New Zealand art: Bill Sutton, Russell Clark, Rudi Gopas. Overlaid with more early art-school era Frizzells are images as familiar to art fans as the comics they stand in for: the yellow sign on Sutton’s painting of Bruce Creek, Gopas’ expressionistic boats, Clark’s modernist cabbage trees. Yet the overriding influences at this point seem to be, as for the comics before them, the works of artists whose styles represent a more international, more popular, idiom: John Bratby’s so-called “kitchen sink” realism, and the cubism of the biggest superstar of the lot, Pablo Picasso.
Years later, after art school, when the now-married-with-children Frizzell had settled, if somewhat fitfully, into a stop-start pattern of working on commercial art projects, it was the chance meeting on a Frizzell canvas between Cubism and a comic hero that let “Art” back into the picture:
I began having those “what if” ideas. “What if” a Cubist composition (Cubism was always my default mode) was made up with objects from now: a Hulk comic instead of ‘Le Journal’, and a Beehive matchbox? What if the Kitchen Sink was conflated with analytical Cubism … and a bit of Rauschenberg? So I stayed up one night and had a go.
Or, as Keith puts it, speculatively, “He paints not because he must, but, I suspect, because he cannot think of anything else he would rather be doing.” Keith is probably right, for overwhelmingly it is a sense of artistic freedom, a pure, joyful abandon in the simple act of painting that Frizzell’s works exude, and that this book so charmingly captures.
For pages upon pages there is no text at all – Frizzell would probably shrug his shoulders and say, “No need” – just beautifully reproduced images, often at the luxurious rate of one per page, through which the reader/viewer is free to wander at his or her own pace, as if through synopses of exhibitions past. Staged in this way it is remarkable how fresh even the very best-known of Frizzell’s works, such as Black Geisha from 1978, or The Dancing Chicken from 1980, appear. They leap off the page with an aesthetic charge, reminding us what all the fuss was about when New Zealand’s own New Image painters burst onto a tired local art scene.
While the focus of the book is very much on documenting and showcasing the art on its own visual terms, the masterstroke of the accompanying text is that it plays such a well-timed and resonant second fiddle to Frizzell’s images.
Keith’s foreword introduces what is to follow from the authoritative perspective of one who is routinely called on to do the business here with the right balance of authority and informality, and yet it is Frizzell’s own voice that rings clearly through the pages and does most service to the images it guides us through. His tone is informal, virtually naive, in precisely the way his paintings and prints deploy an informal aesthetic, openly embracing viewers with their naive charm. Here Frizzell describes his first one-man show:
I went down to the supermarket and bought every tin of fish I could find – and some peaches and corned beef while I was at it. I’d finally found an idea with some legs!
What a show it was! I promoted it like a rock concert – put flyers up around town – rang up radio jocks – printed a punkish/reggae catalogue, drawing myself up like Bob Marley on the cover … .
And so on. His writing is descriptive and conversational, constantly interrupting itself with dashes and ellipses, making its point with ubiquitous exclamation marks. Yet these are far from off-putting; rather, the tone achieves the written equivalent of the imagery: optimistic, brash, colourful and jokey. It may be stylistically naive, but it also manages – if this is even possible – a knowing, ironic naivety. Twice Frizzell dryly remarks that he should write a book one day.
Similarly, the writing reminds us of the importance that tinkering with the written word has always had for Frizzell, from his pithy exhibition titles –Making it A-Fishial, Laying it all on the Lion – to many of the paintings themselves, such as the signage works, which play pointedly and expertly with the peculiarly local use of lettering, referring simultaneously to McCahon as well as to the stereo-typical roadside stall advertising fresh produce.
This is not a book that offers any blistering new insights into the modus operandi of one of New Zealand’s most affectionately regarded artists, but that is not the point. Like Frizzell’s work itself, the book is more concerned with laying out – simply, cleanly and beautifully – the love of paint, of colour, of unexpected inspiration, and of embracing and creating a range of visual imagery that speaks to ordinary experience as much as to a highly-tuned aesthetic instinct.
Hamish Clayton is a freelance writer.