Dick Frizzell: Portrait of the artist as a clever Dick

By Greg Dixon

New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell at his Auckland apartment talking about his new book and exhibitions for the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Greg Bowker
New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell at his Auckland apartment talking about his new book and exhibitions for the Rugby World Cup. Photo / Greg Bowker

He's world famous in New Zealand, but who, Greg Dixon asks, is the real Dick Frizzell?

"Is that a seersucker suit?"

Dick Frizzell stopped, looked slightly aghast and then looked down at his startling blue rig. "No!" he bellowed at me into the growing darkness of Auckland's Lorne St. "It's corduroy. Buffalo corduroy! And I designed it myself!"

He walked on. He's late - well, a bit late, for a very important date. I, however, was not.

I'd arrived at the Gow Langsford Gallery not long after 5pm - the appointed time for the two-hour preview of Mr Corduroy Suit's new exhibition, Rugby, Rhyming and Here - to find just a dozen or so punters sipping Frizzell wines while inspecting Frizzell paintings in that slow, meaningful way in which people scrutinise Art.

The poet Sam Hunt, dressed in stovepipes, Cuban heels and bird's nest hair, was on time, though he was paying more attention to the red in his glass and the blonde at his side than to Frizzell's paintings, some of which feature his own words. The artist Billy Apple, in fetching yellow-framed glasses, was in attendance too, and, if looking somewhat lugubrious, was at least eyeing up the art.

Of the painter Frizzell, however, there was no sign.

After marvelling at the price tags (no Frizzells for me, then) and negotiating the new works twice - the landscapes are like happy flashbacks of a summer roadtrip, the Hunt poem paintings both meditative and celebratory - I decided to bugger off, only to meet Frizzell coming up the street. Of course, that was it, he was just being fashionably tardy. I should have known it was all about the entrance.

Indeed, as he swept into the gallery at 5.30pm, the gentle murmur rose to something closer to a hullabaloo. It could have been that extraordinary suit of his but Frizzell immediately transformed the room and, in a blink, it was suddenly chocker with Frizzell's family, artists, models, Labour MPs (including his sister, Steve Chadwick), writers, ancient rockers, cultural curmudgeons, grey-haired men with pony tails, book publishers, media and 20-somethings with skateboards.

Frizzell beamed. Hunt rambled, recited a poem or two in tribute and then went back to the blonde. There was back-slapping and laughter and requests for more wine please. They were happily here to honour the man in the blue corduroy suit. Well, of course they were. But which Dick Frizzell were they celebrating?

Frizzell isn't just an artist. He is not just an illustrator, or an art teacher or an author. Nor is he - though the bottles bear his name and artwork - a winemaker.

No, Dick Frizzell is something beyond his good works, he has become something more durable and probably more artistically risky. He is a brand, yes, as he proudly acknowledges, but this goes beyond sheer name recognition. What he is also, and perhaps uniquely in the New Zealand art scene, is a fully-fledged industry.

Alone among his contemporaries, Frizzell has turned himself into a multimedia business, the output of which - whether it's on canvas or a Esther Diamond cushion or a T-shirt or a wine bottle - is almost incidental to the creator's signature. A Frizzell is a Frizzell whether you hang it on the wall, pour it into a glass or wear it on your body.

However, the central fact of Frizzell Inc is this: it's about the image, both the ones he creates with paint and ink and the one the man in the corduroy suit has created for himself. And both would seem to be the product of a puckish (and possibly contrary) mind that has been shaped by an atypical artist's life.

Of his images, you might say that if they're not quite ubiquitous, some are so instantly recognisable and so famous that they stand beside the likes of the Buzzy Bee, Paeroa's L&P bottle and the Edmonds Cookery Book as classic Kiwiana.

But of the image of the artist himself? I've found it hard to get a fix. If he and his art are so celebrated, then when does he, occasionally at least, drawsuch ire? Indeed, not everyone has been quite so ready to honour as those at the Gow Langsford Gallery that Tuesday in late September.

In a recent issue of Metro, among the magazine's "20 Questions," its readers were asked, in relation to Frizzell's Rugby World Cup-related work (including T-shirts), whether there was anything Frizzell won't "whore" himself out to?

Then, a couple of weeks before the gallery opening, Herald art commentator Janet McAllister accused Frizzell - again in relation to his RWC output - of being a paid witty cheerleader and labelled him an adman.

"While Frizzell's work in the past could be interpreted as ironic commentary on cultural ownership, his RWC range includes a tiki made out of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union logo," McAllister wrote.

"In Frizzell's earlier work, Mickey to Tiki tu Meke, Mickey Mouse's face morphed into a tiki. It turns out this was less a questioning of (mis)appropriation and more a blueprint for advertising. Just change Mickey to the NZRFU logo and voila!"

And mon dieu! What a lashing. But again here's that question: which Dick Frizzell were they scolding?

If you scratch the artist, does he not bleed? He does. Over more Frizzell wine - the only Frizzells I can afford, I realise - the artist pores over it as he pours.

"It did get to me, it did get to me," he says of Metro's dig. In fact, I'd been talking about it so much that eventually Janine, [my son] Josh's missus, said, 'hey dude, get over it'. I must have brought it up again at a dinner party and she said, 'look at you, you can't stop talking about it can you?' and I said, 'oh shit, you're right'. So I put that one to bed. And then there was the really snippy little piece in the Herald ... that actually made me out to be a paid propagandist for the IRB, as if they paid me to do this thing ... Well, I wasn't paid to do it at all. It cost me a shitload of money and the idea is you're meant to get the money back through the sales."

This sounds a bit angry. But it would be wrong to give the impression that he is. His tone is more perplexed than choleric, though it's the only time in our nearly two-hour chat that he gets anywhere close to being the latter.

Ostensibly I am here - at his and wife Jude's sunny, uber-stylish Auckland flat - to talk about his new book, It's All About The Image. But really what I'm here to do is to try to figure him out.

The Frizzell who opens the door to me has wavy, grey, shoulder-length hair, a neatly trimmed beard and horn-rimmed specs. He is dressed, equally neatly, in a pressed denim shirt and jeans. He's wearing a lovely old watch and an impressive ring made from polished paua shell and silver. He looks like the prosperous 68-year-old that he most certainly is. It's only as we sit down to talk that I notice that he's wearing no shoes. Is that odd? I wasn't sure.

The Frizzell I'd had in my head all week, after reading his 2009 autobiography, Dick Frizzell: The Painter and his new one, probably didn't wear shoes either - I hadn't noticed. But he did seem to have, metaphorically at least, itchy feet.

Drawn to drawing at primary school, he trained in art - if that's what one does, train - at Ilam art school in Christchurch in the early 1960s, only to drop out of its honours course, marry Jude at 21 (she, too, was an Ilam student) and ... do not very much painting for a decade.

"Starving for your art didn't make much sense," he wrote in The Painter, when you had no real idea what you'd be making the sacrifice for.

Instead, he and Jude had three kids (including rapper/artist Otis), he went to teachers' college and, by way of a stint working as an animator, found his way into the advertising industry, working for seven years for Bob Harvey, later mayor of Auckland's Waitakere City.

Frizzell would also work as a for-hire commercial artist and (like other well-known artists including Colin McCahon and Rita Angus) as an illustrator for the New Zealand School Journal.

It wasn't until 1976 that his career as a painter could be said to take flight with an exhibition of work, which he embarked upon after a neighbourhood kid gave him a tin of fish. Its colourful label set him off on the unruly, idiosyncratic ride that he's still on.

A few years after that exhibition, artist and teacher Don Binney offered him a teaching gig at Auckland's Elam art school, a job that would pay the mortgage and get him out of the house for the next 16 years.

His art has been characterised by wildly divergent tangents over the last three decades: post-modern parodies and cartoonish images one moment; quiet, warm, almost traditional landscapes the next. He has been almost infamous too. The knockers called him a "spiritual assassin" because he dared to mess about with the tiki in the mid-1990s.

No artist's life or art can be said to be typical. But his has been, as he says in The Painter, an "erratic evolution," one that has produced the kind of work that drew the great, the good and the rest to the Gow Langsford Gallery last month - and doubtless explains those wild accusations he's an adman, a cheerleader and a whore.

There's been evolution, but he's not interested in revolution. Frizzell might be a Labour supporter, he might even donate art for auction to raise money for Labour. But he's openly and deeply suspicious of art as polemic. Has been forever.

He is also quite upfront that, for him, the line between commercial and fine art is a fuzzy one - for him, too, making money ain't a definition of evil. These two attitudes seem to be central to Frizzell and his work.

"[In the past] you couldn't be known to do commercial art at the same time as doing your fine art because ... it would threaten your integrity as a serious, honest, spiritual leftie, blah blah blah, and it was, emotionally, just a pose really. You had to play that game, but some people totally ... believed it.

"The irony was that my commercial experience gave me my point of difference ... I mean how fabulous was that? So by being transparent about it, it gave me this instant kind of a jump on the competition, if you like. And I found that, in my experience, being transparent has always worked for me ... it's easy to fall prey to those notions of purity and the rest of it.

He admits to a strong competitive streak too. "Well, [art] is a competition. It's a competition because what you're trying to ... you genuinely feel there's a point you're trying to make and if you don't get up there and make it, put it to the front - there's no point in hiding it at the back - you may as well just go off and grow potatoes or something. I dunno. Anyone who says it's not a competition is fooling themselves really."

But to stay competitive, you have to say relevant. And oddly enough, Frizzell's new book figures in this.

It's an interesting volume, All About The Image. Billed as his A-to-Z of New Zealand art that has inspired him, it includes 100 or so works with short, folksy school reports, as he puts it, about the individual artists.

He is, as is his wont, uncommonly honest, sometimes brutally so, about some of his forebears, contemporaries and, yes, competitors. On Rita Angus: "Possibly she should have got out more." On Bill Hammond: "sixth form surrealism". On Ralph Hotere: "let[s] the 'issues' overwhelm the aesthetic."

It's an enjoyable read all right, but it's not just a collection of loving praise and waspish put-downs. The book, for its author, is a statement about his place in the New Zealand art landscape.

"I think to me, the book is incredibly significant. Every artist wants to stay relevant on some level - I mean, there's nothing worse than becoming irrelevant because when you're irrelevant, you don't exist. Some people bring it upon themselves through getting bitter and twisted and all the rest of it. And some people just lose the plot along the way. Attrition is a huge part of this business, any creative business, because creativity is merciless like that ... and my work is, you know, people still like it and I'm still kind of there. It's hardly cutting edge, you know what I mean, it's just good stuff ... but I feel the book is more on the edge than [my] work in a way."

From the outside, relevance could be seen to be irrelevant anyway. Frizzell's stamina might not be what it was, but his larger new works, particularly Pile of Stumps, shows he's still got plenty of puff for the large stuff. His habits and lifestyle are regular - 9 to 5 in the studio, though these days with "a little lie down after lunch" - and a glass of wine while watching the evening news. His bank account does not trouble him.

"I've got an Audi parked out there and I've got this apartment here and a house in Hawkes Bay - it is kind of amazing, I can't believe it myself, you know what I mean? I'm 68, so it's pretty good. I said to Jenny Hellen this morning, the editor [at his publisher, Random House], 'did you ever send that money through after I signed the [book] contract? Jude can't remember it coming through?' [Jenny] said, 'oh, I dunno, I'll have a look'. And anyway, she said, 'oh I'm sorry, no, we didn't', and I thought 'fancy not even [noticing]' ... It's terrible."

Well probably not. It's proof, though, that the various Frizzells - artist, illustrator, wine brand, T-shirt designer - have served him well. So, too, has his longevity. And it is this sheer staying power, that - love him or deride him - is extraordinarily impressive. He has a theory about this - his longevity - too, and perhaps it's his answer to this that finally helps me, at least, to understand him.

"I reckon I know exactly what [the secret to my longevity is]. It's knowing where you fit, really ... so you're not railing all the time about 'why aren't I here and why aren't I there?' Because that stuff gnaws away at you. There's always something you're not ... And I think [accepting that] is a big part of it because you don't have anything eating away inside, because that's where the damage comes from, isn't it? So you've got to watch that one like a hawk.

"You have to make your own luck and trust your instincts, that's the other thing. I do look around and think I've been incredibly lucky. You know, just when I go and do something that you're not meant to do [in art], all of a sudden it's permissible. It's kind of weird. And I think 'is that me or did someone else do it first or something?' But I think it's a lot to do with that thing about being transparent.

"Like the wine business and all that, it's okay. Well, it's not okay with everyone but I couldn't care about them. It's like when we started this wine business, one of the other partners [was asked] 'are you sure you know what you're doing with this thing? Half the country don't know who Dick is'. And he said, 'all right, well I won't sell it to them'."

* All About The Image (Godwit $65) is out now. Rugby, Rhyming and Here is at the Gow Langsford Gallery until tomorrow. Dick Frizzell will be speaking at the Auckland Art Gallery on October 16 at 11am. Entry is free.

- NZ Herald

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