Dick Frizzell: The Painter, Bill Culbert: Making Light Work, Whites Aviation: Classic New Zealand Aerial Photography

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

Notes on three recent New Zealand art publications.

Dick Frizzell: The Painter (Forward by Hamish Keith; Godwit, NZ$75) is essentially an autobiography in art, including hundreds of images, reproductions, copies of source material, sketches, and words by the artist about his life and work—altogether, an impressive survey of Frizzell’s work.

The autobiographical section reads a little like stream of consciousness; a reflection, perhaps, of Frizzell himself. He writes well, contemplating on his upbringing, art education, art theory, and work. There are masses of illustrations, mainly uncredited and not discussed in the text. Presumably they are selections of his commercial works, inspirations, and other bits and pieces of the time.

Having finished art school, Frizzell began working not as an Artist but as an artist—earning a living working for various advertising agencies, animation companies, and producing book illustrations. When he kicks into Art again, we are taken along on his journey, learning the how and why he created certain works. It’s an honest look at the ups and downs of an artist. While not brutally honest, it’s certainly not rose-tinted either, and delivers enough humour and self-deprecation to keep us interested in the journey.

These days Frizzell is probably best known for his take on Kiwiana, yet it was an unhappy meeting with American painter Neil Jenney which prompted this reassessment of his practice. What struck me most was how utterly deliberate the changes in his work have been.

This is a comprehensive book and stands as an important overview of one of New Zealand’s best known contemporary artists. Ultimately, as is the case with most publications of this nature, whether you warm to it or not will probably be based on whether you like the art. To my mind, there’s enough in Dick Frizzell: The Painter to make it stand above the artworks and appeal to anyone interested in art in general, and particularly artistic practice.

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Also extensive, Bill Culbert: Making Light Work (By Ian Wedde; AUP, NZ$100) is a significant monograph of the New Zealand-born, Europe-residing artist known primarily for his sculptures and photography. As the title suggests Culbert works with light, often quite literally. A few years ago Dunedin Public Art Gallery published Light Wine Things, concentrating on his photographic work.

This volume presents a thorough survey of Culbert’s work, from paintings he made in the 1950s and 60s, to his photos to recent installation works, including commissions and public sculptures. The book is extensively illustrated with notebook sketches, planning diagrams and installation photos. And then, of course, there are Ian Wedde’s texts: part biography, part examination of Culbert’s artistic practice. It also boasts the most comprehensive bibliography and exhibition history that I’ve seen in a long time.

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Whites Aviation was at one time an iconic New Zealand company, however their reputation and name has slipped from general recognition. They were a commercial photographic business, but they also produced large, hand-coloured scenic photos that decorated many a house.

Alexander Turnbull Library, who hold sizeable portion of the collection, have put together Whites Aviation: Classic New Zealand Aerial Photography (Godwit, NZ$60)—a compilation album of sorts, including their ‘hits’, some lesser ‘tracks’, as well as contextualising essays by Turnbull Library photographic curator John Sullivan and aviation historian Ross Ewing looking at the company, Leo White and Snow Stewart. This approach is something of an easy option; once over lightly, the resulting publication leaves plenty of room for someone else to author a more complete version of what sounds like a fascinating history.

Snippets of text do prove interesting, especially for those of us who tend towards camera geekery. The photos themselves, organised geographically with educational captions, are undoubtedly technically superb, but as these are historical aerial photos I found my interest was principally in those areas I know well, leaving most of the book largely ignored. While a worthy snapshot of New Zealand history, a book showcasing either Whites’ commercial colourised landscape photography, or the company’s history, would have been far more substantial.


  1. You can still find the old White’s book, published in the 60s with B&W aerial photos of most towns and cities in NZ. Does this cover the same territory? Agree – the scenic work and history would’ve been a bonus – perhaps Vol.II?

  2. andy palmer says

    hi james,

    the whites aviation book is purely aerial shots so there probably is quite a bit of double up of images. the introductory texts are interesting though. i’ve seen copies at arty bees and ferret books here in welly if you feel like checking it out.

    cheers, andy

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