Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Impressive teamwork

Ian Wedde: Bill Culbert / Making Light Work
270 pp, colour and b/w illustrations
Auckland University Press 2009

This book is the result of a collaboration between expat artist Bill Culbert with poet /novelist/ critic Ian Wedde. It is an inspired pairing for the result has to be one of the most visually sophisticated art books this country has ever put out. It exudes intelligence, not just the erudition and verbal dexterity of Wedde’s richly layered writing, and the sensuality and wit of Culbert’s extraordinary drawings, photographs and documented light sculptures – but also the sequencing and placement of images and text on every double-page spread. It’s a high class publication: impeccably elegant and concentrated in its density of information.

Also, for a Wedde book, this one is highly accessible. Maybe not as easy a read as his Fomison publication but nevertheless enticing. An exceptionally knowledgeable and versatile wordsmith, he is not only intellectually agile with a professorial grasp that effortlessly connects hitherto seemingly unrelated subjects, he is also a great verbal craftsman, with vivid powers of description for people, place and the outdoors. In the past I have often found find his rich and often convoluted texts exhaustingly heady but this book I couldn’t put down.

This is partly because Culbert’s images are alluring, and partly because Wedde here though intricate, is also very clear. I’ve always thought Wedde was a specialist in the Pacific region and its history but this book shows how global his interests in fact are. He writes effortlessly about Culbert’s life in France and England, giving precise and evocative descriptions of Culbert’s art, family and social life - there and back in New Zealand where he was born and educated and which he visits annually. Also because Wedde is obviously passionate about Culbert and his work, his enthusiasm is infectious. He knows Culbert’s personality and quirky traits well (such as his hatred of the metaphysical and metaphorical) – and describes them brilliantly.

The information crammed into this publication ranges from details about Culbert’s secondary school art education at Hutt Valley High with the amazing teacher James Coe, and his Canterbury years at Ilam as part of the Armagh St set in the mid fifties, to his shift to London to study and live and then to Southern France to also live. It makes the most of his early impressive semi-cubist paintings and their interest in light, and his enthusiasm for Duchamp’s readymades, plus it places a high emphasis on conviviality and the importance of his friendship with other artists like Simon Cutts, Ralph Hotere, Stuart Brisley, Ted Bracey and Quentin Macfarlane. And of course his wife Pip is crucial – a very significant artist in her own right.

It is also liberally peppered with Culbert’s exquisite preparatory pen drawings that like his photographs are effective aids for research. As you’d expect there are also many images from his trusty Rolleicord camera, recording a vast range of phenomena - such as dramatic shapes created by harsh light or dark shadow, or delicate punning shadow-like forms made by light passing through transparent solids or coloured liquids. Plus spectacular documentary images of public commissions and unexpected works like his unusual light-box tip-trucks, which look extraordinary.

Wedde is impressively thorough in his elucidation of Culbert’s various methods and underlying ethos, one that embraces humble, easily available, commonplace materials. The artist’s constant use of various ‘objects of affection’ such as his aforementioned camera, his Citröen 2CV car and his Parker 51 drawing pen is also lucidly explained.

If the writing has a weakness it is that Culbert is too strong a personality. While it is inevitable he dominate – after all he is the book’s subject – there is possibly too much about him and not enough about the wider sweep of art history and other contemporary artists who also study (or have studied) the properties of light. It could have done with some detailed contextualising, comparing Culbert’s practice with the endeavours of related artists such as David Batchelor, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, or Spencer Finch. There is some good discussion about Dan Flavin but overall Wedde has kept too closely to Culbert’s circle of friends and admirers, and not explored the wider context of his visual research and of the international art scene as it is now.

After all for all the hard work Culbert has put in constantly travelling back and forth between hemispheres putting up shows, you wonder why someone like David Batchelor (a writer as well as an artist) has such a high profile in London while Culbert, a seemingly obvious influence, is comparatively invisible. Maybe it is as Culbert once drolly described himself, because he is ‘the older guy at the party.’

There are two other aspects I find disconcerting – and both (like the artist’s role in this book) are irresolvable.

One is that sometimes Culbert’s light sculptures and installations are not as satisfying in real life as their photographic documentation indicates. Photographs in books tend to spatially condense and be composed in their making, often with the picture being taken from high up - whereas in galleries the peripatetic viewer sees the work from different less dramatic angles. This is a commonplace problem for documentation within art publications.

The second is that b/w photographs of objects in rural settings in France, even if made to aid thought and illustrate natural properties or humorous substitutions, invariably look quaint, simply because the ubiquitous wooden and stone textures look so romantic and charming. As with French pop music there is an all pervading sweetness in the culture, although when you spend time there, a parallel coarse brutality (as evidenced by the Rainbow Warrior’s sinking) also becomes obvious. Yet where else should Culbert make his photographs – but at home? It is inevitable and sensible he does that.

This publication is a significant accomplishment for Wedde, Culbert and AUP. Despite my quibbles this beautiful, exceptionally well made and interesting book needs to be looked at, read closely and discussed. Hopefully that will happen.

1 comment:

artandmylife said...
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