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Dick Frizzell comes full circle

This must be Dick Frizzell’s year. His Four Square guy is everywhere, his wine won gold at the 2009 New Zealand International Wine Show, and his book, Dick Frizzell: The Painter, has been released to wide acclaim. Nobody blends the creative and the commercial quite like Frizzell, but where does he draw the line?

This must be Dick Frizzell’s year. His pop reconstruction of the iconic Four Square guy is everywhere—even fronting the Rugby World Cup campaign—the Frizzell Hawkes Bay Merlot 2007 won gold at the 2009 New Zealand International Wine Show, and his book, Dick Frizzell: The Painter, has been released to wide acclaim. Nobody blends the creative and the commercial quite like Frizzell, but where does he draw the line? And why can’t he pick one thing and stick to it?

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Dick Frizzell, Rolling Stone Cover (1978)

Did you always want your own book? Whose idea was it?

Random House asked if anyone had proposed a decent article about me. I said “I've been waiting for Thames & Hudson to call all my life and I'm sick of waiting … so you’ll do.”

I took charge, without really realising I was doing it. I visualised the size and scope of the thing in my head. I suspect Random House had something more modest in mind but I jumped in and started conceptualising the structure of a book. One thing led to another. The structure became a blend of chaos and order. I wanted everything in there—including the work I did for school journals and advertising … the whole ball of wax. I had hundreds of transparencies I’d built up as a lecturer at Elam.

I thought Hamish Keith was going to write it, so I put down bullet points so Hamish could get some sort of sense. The bullet points started joining up. I thought ‘Oh, I think I'm writing it’. I just wrote and I wrote.

It’s quite unusual for an artist to not only self-curate but also make it autobiographical, isn’t it?

I had a pretty strong sense of how I wanted to be represented.

It makes for a better book. It's not just your work but it’s your voice as well.

I wrote it all in longhand with my fountain pen. Then Fane Flaws came around. I was filling the blank dummy the publisher had given me with photos and printouts. Hamish Keith’s son in Auckland was going to design it because I had worked on Hamish’s autobiography, Native Son, and he owed me a favour. Then Fane said “I’ll design it for you.” I thought, gee, this is getting a bit dangerous. We bought all the software and the hardware and set it up in Fane’s living room. Meanwhile the publisher up in Auckland is saying “What’s going on, what’s going on, who’s doing it?” I said “Well, I've got this bloke.” There were sleepless nights lying in bed staring at the ceiling. We’d do four pages and be so pleased with ourselves then realise there were still about 290 to go.

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I enjoyed your writing style. A lot of writing about art is unnecessarily academic.

No doubt about it. It’s just the nature of the beast—the experts have to state their position. This is not a work of scholarship, it’s more an art writer’s nightmare. I tramped through post-modernism in about three paragraphs. Once you start to analyse things, then away you go … over-analysis. Critics are scared they’ll look flippant.

I bought a little study you did of some aubergines. Once I’d made that investment in a ‘Dick Frizzell’, the next time I saw a show you’d shifted gears to something else, like the Junk Mail Narratives. How can people know who you are and what you represent if you keep doing different things?

That’s very true. I used to disappoint a few people until they got the hang of it. I remember an art writer or curator telling me it was going to take people quite a while to figure me out because what I was doing was a big story and not just a one-off.

Do you think people take art too seriously, or not seriously enough?

Neither, actually. Art doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously if it's not giving a little. Most of art’s problems it brings upon itself. It shouldn’t project itself as such a secret society. It could be a little more generous.

I don’t think it hurts for artists to make an effort to explain themselves periodically. That idea they often hide behind—it’s up to the individual to determine the meaning—is a bit selfish. Huh, don’t get me started …

There’s a lot of humour and a sense of playfulness and ironic culture references running through your work. Does that make you a painterly pop artist?

I suppose so, but I couldn’t be Et Al any more than she could be Dick Frizzell. You have to know where you sit in the spectrum, what your contribution is and where it comes from. It was no accident that I ended up in advertising because of my nature. And it was no accident that I have a wine company. It’s just where your personality takes you.

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Do you think the business of art is becoming more the responsibility of the artist—that you don't need to be a starving artist in a garret?

That’s dead and buried. If you’ve got a contribution to make, it's not very hard. It's like working on this book with Fane Flaws, egging each other on, and working with an ex-Saatchi creative on the wine label ideas and the promotional ideas. With the wine, we’re the product and the client, the agency rolled into one. We can do whatever we think of. It’s astonishing.

Yet there are still people in the art world who frown on commercialisation.

You’ll always get stick from the art world. There are people who feel threatened by ‘crass’ commercial awareness. You’re kidding yourself if you think it’s not there.

But if it’s not in your nature, don’t do it. If it gives you the creeps, then don’t do it.

Isn’t it an ironic full circle that you might be inspired by kitsch tea towels, and then you end up making tea towels yourself?

Absolutely, full circle. I'm completing a lot of circles lately. I've just signed up to sex up New Zealand’s new Rugby World Cup presentation. That will be the end of my career, I tell you. But now that I’ve got the book out, you see, I can do whatever I like.

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Taming the beast

Dick Frizzell: The Painter
By Dick Frizzell (Godwit, 2009). $75

Buy@Fishpond

I remember the first time I encountered a Dick Frizzell painting. It caught me by surprise in the corridor of NW Ayer, an ill-fated incursion by an ancient American advertising agency that had bought into Bob Harvey’s company, McHarman. Harvey is a friend of Frizzell, who worked in advertising for a large chunk of his career. The picture was called Self Portrait as a Lion Tamer. The image stars the artist, complete with flamboyant signature moustache, in a cage with a lion rampant, resting its paw on his shoulder. Rather than being dressed in the coat and tails one might expect of a lion tamer he is curiously dressed like a Victorian vaudeville performer (though that is possibly an unreliable interpretation; given Frizzell’s penchant for comic book characters, it could well be a reference to an early Flash Gordon cartoon). Suddenly I was aware of Frizzell-the-painter and became an instant fan.

Later, when I worked for an opera company, I made a commercial with Dick’s son Josh to promote Rigoletto. The commercial badly emulated the film titles of Saul Bass and featured Frizzell as a ring-in Rigoletto in silhouette (complete with a large, hooked prosthetic nose). He’s a sport, willing turn his hand to anything that interests him creatively, whether exploring a new theme or direction in his painting or writing the text for and designing his own retrospective tome. It’s this quality that makes the book an essential and thoroughly engaging work for anyone with even a remote interest in art or what it is like to toil in the creative industries in New Zealand.

It’s a warm, engaging retrospective told in the first person and brilliantly illustrated throughout. This book is in Frizzell’s own tradition of self-portraiture: a hard-working artist exploring ideas and taming lions.

–David MacGregor