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Review: Dick Frizzell at the Solander Gallery


One of the most influential and celebrated contemporary Pop artists working in New Zealand, Dick Frizzell is mostly known for his appropriation of kitsch Kiwiana icons, which he often incorporates into cartoon-like paintings and lithographs. Not content with adhering to one particular style, he likes to adopt consciously unfashionable styles of painting, in a manner reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein. Some of his best-known work plays with the 'Four Square Man,' an advertising character for the Four Square grocery chain. Frizzell is also responsible for the lithograph Mickey to Tiki, portraying a cartoon Mickey Mouse evolving in stages to a Tiki, which became a best-selling print and popular T-shirt, released by the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Born in Auckland in 1943, Frizzell trained at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury from 1960 to 1963, studying under Rudi Gopas and Russell Clark. Like Warhol before him, he worked in advertising for several years, where he gained a deep appreciation for the characters he later incorporated into his art work. His prints and paintings are held in many public, corporate, and private collections throughout New Zealand, and his major commissions include works for Sky City Casino and the painting of an Ansett New Zealand aeroplane for Starship Children's Hospital. The major retrospective Dick Frizzell: Portrait of a Serious Artiste of 1997 attracted some controversy, due to the inclusion of Grocer with Moko (1992), which depicted the Four Square man with facial moko and offended some viewers.

Frizzell has licensed designs to the Esther Diamond linen company, released a number of varieties of Frizzell Wines, and designed the cover and several illustrations for The Great New Zealand Songbook (2009). In the same year, he published the eponymously titled Dick Frizzell: The Painter, with a foreword by Hamish Keith, and in 2012 completed a series of paintings relating to poems by Sam Hunt. At their opening exhibition, Frizzell said that he and Hunt had committed the "ultimate sin of being understood" in their respective media.

Frizzell has managed to slip through the nets of traditional critical and curatorial definition and his popularity is partly due to the number of dramatic diversions he has made between different art styles and genres. Having worked as an animator, commercial artist, and illustrator, he has no qualms about blurring the categories between his commercial and art work, and his paintings are often a pastiche of images drawing on modern art and graphic design. His highly-skilled handling of paint encompasses an endlessly inventive range of subject matter and styles, ranging from faux-naive New Zealand landscapes, figurative still-life, comic book characters, and witty parodies of modernist abstraction.

Frizzell's tastes are broad and he has a penchant for punning on fondly-remembered and well-worn clichés, combined with a sense of exuberant, ironic humor, and baby-boomer nostalgia. Many of his prints and paintings are inspired by comic books, advertising trademarks, Maori iconography, and rural road signs, addressing issues around cultural (mis)appropriation, bicultural cross-fertilisation, art as design, and the politicisation of New Zealand art. An anti-traditionalist, Frizzell deliberately confuses and confounds the categories of high and low art - poking fun at the intellectualisation of ‘high art’ and the existential angst of much New Zealand painting in the art culture of his youth.

Given the rapid and complex social changes that have occurred in New Zealand over the last thirty years, questions about Kiwi cultural identity are highly relevant to his work and Frizzell has eagerly adopted a role that requires him to investigate and reflect on them. That he still performs this role with dedication and assurance underscores his commitment not only to exploring a genuinely antipodean Pop sensibility, but also to exploiting its commercial potential. In 'Contemporary New Zealand Art 2,' Elizabeth Caughey and John Gow described his approach as follows - “It was while working in the environment of commercial advertising that Frizzell began to pluck familiar objects from their usual context and turn them into arresting images. Several products that were ‘household’ names to New Zealanders in the late 1970’s became icons in Frizzell’s hands. From sources as varied as canned fish wrappers, corner shop signage and junk mail, he turned images into paintings, giving titles that introduced unexpected associations.” Michael Dunn, in his 'Contemporary Painting in New Zealand,' noted that Frizzell’s work often exhibits “an eclectic quality, brought about by the variety of styles he has borrowed, pastiched or commented on in his art. In much of his imagery, no line is drawn between low art sources such as comic book illustrations or packaging and the high art references with which his painting is freely sprinkled.”

Not all of Frizzell's reviews have been quite so adulatory, however. Metro magazine asked its readers, in relation to Frizzell's Rugby World Cup-related work (including T-shirts), whether there is anything Frizzell won't "whore" himself out to, after art commentator Janet McAllister accused him of being a paid 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!"

In an October 2011 interview for The NZ Herald, Greg Dixon provided a more nuanced assessment of his achievements - "Alone among his contemporaries, Frizzell has turned himself into a multimedia business, the output of which - whether it's on canvas or an 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."

Although primarily a painter, Frizzell has also produced an extensive and impressive range of works on paper - including the lithographs and screen prints that are the focus of his current exhibition at the Solander Gallery in Wellington. It provides an excellent opportunity to decide for yourself whether his work is joyfully innovative, subversive, and irreverent - or over-rated, over-priced, and fundamentally derivative. One thing, however, is certain - you won't be bored.

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