Dick Frizzell: Portrait of a Serious Artiste (Wellington and Dunedin: City Gallery Wellington and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1997), np.
Dick Frizzell once said, ‘Walking through a supermarket, I feel like Van Gogh walking through a wheatfield.’ Frizzell’s description conjures up a vision in which rows of wheat magically transform into aisles of commodities, lush nature gives way to a cornucopia of packaging. And yet, what persists throughout this morph is a romantic motif, that stock image of the artist—serious, sensitive, observant, original—only now he is strangely out of place, lost, stranded in the modern world.
Bringing together the exceptional figure of Van Gogh and the common supermarket is a typical move for Frizzell. He is a leveller. Over the last twenty years, Frizzell’s work has sung the praises of various forms of low art, including comic books, fish-tin labels, naive art, and the derided indigenous tradition of regionalist landscape painting. While endorsing low art, Frizzell has made light of high art, offering a comic book cubism in the mid-1970s, a comic-book neo-classicism in the mid-1980s, and mock-moderns and limp Stellas in the 1990s. In the 1980s, the critic Wystan Curnow offered a great insight when he argued that Frizzell’s work represents the struggle not of the-ends-against-the-middle but of the-middle-against-both-ends. Frizzell presumes to elevate low art—as if it required elevation; at the same time he takes the gloss off what he considers to be the pretensions of transcendentalist and intellectual art. In this regard his notorious ‘bullshit detector’ is ever vigilant.
Being a leveller has afforded him a kind of mobility, a certain freedom. Frizzell has been able to engage both ends while siding with neither; occupying positions that are routinely considered exclusive. He has done graffiti bombing but also executed a commissioned civic portrait of Dame Cath. He may give the theorists a run for their money but he is himself a senior lecturer at the university. He is regarded as an advocate for the unsung virtues of low and popular art but he’s also a successful market artist. His work regularly satirises the grand art of painting, but in the market place he is often presented (especially with the landscapes) as a ‘real’ painter. (Certainly, many of those who bought the big landscapes of the late 1980s accepted them as the continuation of a dormant tradition—agreeable traditionalism for the foyer or boardroom—rather than as a parody of it.) And while Frizzell may set himself against current theories, in the process of bucking them he follows and invests in the debates. For instance, his interest in regional landscape painting followed the critique of the nationalist landscape tradition, while the Tiki show also exploited an established critical hot spot. In both cases, Frizzell volunteered to exemplify derided practices. And he did it knowingly, not naively; although a dash of naivety may have been part of the pose.
Frizzell’s work plays with ideas about ‘the artist’. Take his 1978 self portrait as a ‘serious artiste’, his Rolling Stone Cover. This work recalls Colin McCahon’s painting The Promised Land (1948), in which the black-singletted artist-hero is visited by an angel in the backblocks. McCahon offers the artist as existentialist, as seer. McCahon’s work is earnest, and the black singlet becomes a marker of that. Frizzell’s image is different. Despite wearing a black singlet and styling himself as a real man, a worker/artist/hero, the dandified moustache and Rolling Stone masthead give the game away. In offering himself less as a noble grail-quester than as a confident publicist, the work belies Frizzell’s paying gigs as an ad man and illustrator. The artist becomes a merry mate of Ches and Dale, the black singletted farmers from the cheesy TV cheese commercials he helped animate in the early 1970s.
In such self portraits as Putting It all on the Lion (1977), Self Portrait as a Lion Tamer (1978), and Self Portrait as a Cannibal (1979), Frizzell continued to perfect his parody of the earnest, authentic, expressive artist battling against the dark side. These works set the tone for much of Frizzell’s work in the 1980s. Anticipating the axemen, the wrestlers beating up angels, the neo-classical big men, and the blood-letting farmers, they seem to caricature a certain masculinity, but with Frizzell casting himself as the male lead. At the same time they embrace a very masculine ‘no bullshit/no wankers’ mentality, from the choice of subject matter right down to the blokeish matter-of-fact paint application.
Through all its chops and changes, Frizzell’s career can be understood as consistent in its parodic acting out—its hamming up—of stock scenarios of being an artist. This parody is not just to be found represented in the works themselves, it is also embodied in Frizzell’s practice, the way he plays the part. Frizzell has written art manifestos while slagging off other artists who make grand claims. He has deliberately pursued cliched and retrograde themes, such as the archetypal mythologies of Escape from Salvation Part II (1984). He has been prolific within established and tired genres, especially landscape and still life. He has cultivated a studied brand of ‘bad painting’, redeemed with passages of tell-tale virtuosity.
If parody and irony keep Frizzell at a distance from his subject matter, they also allow him to engage with it. Perhaps this way of working relates to his background in commercial art and advertising, where the artist is regularly required to render up, mimic, and manipulate a variety of manners rather than specialising in a signature style, rather than identifying with a style that is him. In the advertising world, vernacular imagery and high art are equally grist for the graphics mill, being decontextualised and reduced simply to styles. The result is camp. Frizzell takes great pleasure in this reduction, saying, ‘Whether it’s a Malevich or a Batman comic cover, it’s the same thing: just printing on paper.’
Frizzell is a tourist of existing styles. This is nowhere more evident than in the 1992 Tiki series, in which almost every work is painted in a different style. It is as though the tiki—and by extension Frizzell himself—had infiltrated twentieth-century visual culture (art and popular imagery), to possess it, and mock it from within. The Tiki series was hugely controversial. The politics of cultural appropriation was a key issue at the time, and Frizzell, despite his protestations and defences, did not naively stumble into this minefield. He adopted a classic ad-man approach: kick up controversy for free column inches. True, the Tiki works were designed to offend some people, but, it must be said, they were also an instalment in a larger campaign, Frizzell’s self-appointed good-fight against inequality, against perceived sacred cows be they tiki, monochrome, artist-hero, or puffed-up self.
Frizzell is a leveller, but he’s not mean-spirited. He’s no balloon-pricker, his parody is always affectionate, his tone is not superior. In fact, as we have seen, much of his work is self-deprecating. However, as much as he makes fun of ‘the artist’, the joke is an alibi. By showing up a cliched romantic notion of the artist, he keeps the idea in play. He is more than happy to live out the mythology—to have his parody and eat it too.