Dick Frizzell: Images in an artist's heart

By Peter Simpson

New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell. Photo /  Greg Bowker
New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell. Photo / Greg Bowker

There are some surprises in Frizzell's choice of paintings, writes Peter Simpson

Book review
It's All About The Image by Dick Frizzell
(Godwit $65)

It's hard to avoid Dick Frizzell these days; whether it is paintings or wine or T-shirts or books or items on TV and in magazines - he is all over the place. Perhaps he is this generation's equivalent of what Peter McIntyre was in the post-war decades, an artist with a popular style who parlayed his popularity into a range of other activities such as best-selling books.

As it happens, McIntyre has a role to play in Frizzell's latest venture, a collection of 100 of his favourite New Zealand paintings. In his chatty introduction he recalls as a lad in Hawke's Bay watching McIntyre working on a mural in the Hastings War Memorial Library.

"He painted some small rocks on the desert sand at the feet of the soldiers and, with what seemed like just a couple of brushstrokes, he rendered the texture of the rock, the sun on the rock, the reflected light on the shady side of the rock, and the shadow of the rock on the sand.

The entire universe right there. With a brush and some paint, I've been trying to be that clever ever since."

McIntyre's kind of art has long been out of favour with many sophisticated art followers, but that is no barrier to his being lauded by Frizzell who revels in the manifestations of popular culture which he has so successfully appropriated for his own art.

Frizzell's favourites include a fair number of artists who are not now rated highly by the experts, such as Cedric Savage, Nugent Welsh, Archibald Nicoll and Austen Deans - all landscape painters it may be noted, a style of art that Frizzell has done a good deal to rehabilitate through his own accomplished practice (though landscape is far from being his only mode).

Just as he resuscitates the unfashionable, so Frizzell leaves out a fair number of artists with big reputations (it would be invidious to name them), but as he says: "I was never going to write a comprehensive history - hardly a legit history at all, really. It's a tight list, but it's succinct - and it's mine." Fair enough, that is what his publisher asked for.

The format of the book is straightforward; each painter gets a single image (except for a few like McCahon and McIntyre who also have images in the introduction, and the author, who awards himself a second image to replace one by his teacher Rudi Gopas for which permission was refused).

The order of the paintings is roughly as Frizzell encountered them, which makes for a few chronological surprises. The last image is a 1930s portrait by Leo Bensemann which he discovered as the book was going to press.

Each painting (and it is only paintings - sculpture, drawings, photography, video and installations are ignored ) gets a few paragraphs of commentary, often sharp, well-informed and to the point. Here, chosen almost at random, is a paragraph (one of three) about Doris Lusk's Landscape Overlooking Kaitawa, Waikaremoana (1948).

"Hers are tough uncompromising paintings, boldly taking in huge chunks of geography and taming them with extraordinary leaps of scale, tone and colour stitched together with dynamic patterning that cleverly uses mass and tertiary detail in constant tension across the surface of the composition. Even her dry scrubby brushwork seems to be the perfect vehicle for describing these raw environments." Despite the loose metaphors, this manages to say a good deal very succinctly.

Many of the paintings are familiar: a Hanly Figures in Light, Clairmont's Scarred Couch, a Binney bird, an Angus portrait, a Gimblett quatrefoil, a Karl Maughan garden (except that this one includes silver beet rather than rhododendrons), Pule's floating islands, a Walters koru painting; but others are fresh and unfamiliar.

Frizzell is admirably generous towards artists much younger than himself, many new to me. The book deserves to do well.

* Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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