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This has to be one of the most visually sophisticated art books this country has ever put out.

AUCKLAND UNIVERSITY PRESS

2009

 

Ian Wedde
Bill Culbert / Making Light Work

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.

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This Discussion has 4 comments.

Comment

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers, 5:16 p.m. 3 February, 2010

Nice to finally see a good book review on the site.

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John Hurrell, 8:02 a.m. 5 October, 2011

Celebrated New Zealand sculptor, photographer and installation artist Bill Culbert has been invited by Creative New Zealand to present his work at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

Culbert was recommended to Creative New Zealand by an external advisory panel convened by 2013 Venice Biennale Commissioner Jenny Harper. The artist will visit the 54th biennale later this month, viewing possible venues for his presentation in 2013 and honing his ideas for the new exhibition.

‘I am delighted that Bill Culbert has accepted our invitation to go to Venice in 2013. He makes marvellous work, constantly re-investigating how light works and refreshing how we think of it. He has lived away from New Zealand for some years, but returns regularly and continues to have a dynamic presence in this country’s visual arts. Without doubt, he is one of our leading senior artists. Venice is a wonderful platform for us both to celebrate his individual achievements and to continue to present the richness of this country’s visual arts practice,’ Ms Harper says.

The Venice Biennale is the pre-eminent global contemporary visual arts event attracting a host of international artists, curators, critics and collectors.

Otago-born Culbert painted and worked more conceptually before beginning his experimentation with electric light in the late 1960s. Often associated with kinetic and constructivist art, he also has a strong affinity with Marcel Duchamp and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy through his work with found objects and through a continuing exploration of ideas around light, energy, perspective, social space and politics.

Culbert has sustained a busy exhibition schedule throughout his career, with more than 100 solo exhibitions in New Zealand, England, Europe, the United States and Australia since 1960, and many more group exhibitions and major public art commissions.

“Building on the success of Michael Parekowhai's stunning current exhibition, the Arts Council is keen to make progress for 2013,” Chair Alastair Carruthers said, “It's good to be able to consider Bill’s practice as we select a new venue and to give him plenty of time to create a remarkable work. Our patrons and other supporters can also begin planning. New Zealand has got terrific momentum in Venice. "

(to be continued...)

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John Hurrell, 8:08 a.m. 5 October, 2011

(CNZ statement continuing)

Selection process

A panel was convened in late September to select the artist for 2013. The selection panel was comprised of gallery directors and visual arts experts and included;

· Alastair Carruthers (Chair of the Arts Council)

· Jenny Harper (Christchurch Art Gallery)

· Christina Barton (Adam Art Gallery)

· Elizabeth Caldwell (Dunedin Public Art Gallery)

· Heather Galbraith (Massey University)

· Michael Houlihan (Te Papa)

· Peter Robinson (Auckland University and 2001 Venice Biennale artist)

Prior to the selection meeting the Commissioner sought advice from the wider visual arts sector inviting them to propose names of artists and/or artist/curator teams.

The panel agreed that Culbert continues to produce fresh and interesting work in a variety of media and was exceptional in his continuing and broad interest in a range of contemporary issues.

Next steps

Creative New Zealand is delighted that the 2013 Head of the Patrons will be Dayle Mace whose contribution to the fund-raising alongside Dame Jenny Gibbs for previous biennales has been invaluable. Mace will be assisted by Leigh Melville.

Creative New Zealand will also work closely with the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, on the realisation of the New Zealand exhibition in 2013.

Biography

Born in Port Chalmers, Culbert studied fine art at Canterbury University School of Art (1953-56), and in 1957 received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London, gaining a silver medal for painting. He now works in sculpture, installation and photography, often in combination around the subject of light. His materials include light bulbs, lampshades, fluorescent tubes, plastic bottles, wine glasses and suitcases. He travels extensively and exhibits widely in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He is represented in New Zealand by Sue Crockford Gallery. He lives and works in the South of France and London.

Background to New Zealand’s participation in the Venice Biennale

New Zealand first exhibited at the Biennale in 2001 with further exhibitions in 2003 and 2005.

In December 2007 Creative New Zealand’s Arts Council committed to a New Zealand presence at the Venice Biennale for the 2009, 2011 and 2013 exhibitions.

Creative New Zealand's level of investment in the 2013 Venice Biennale will be $650,000. This includes the rental and staffing of a pavilion for New Zealand during the 6-month exhibition and a fee for the artist to assist with the costs of making and shipping their work to Venice.

Reply to this thread

John Hurrell, 1:36 p.m. 6 October, 2011

The success of any New Zealand project in Venice depends on having the right curator, not the right artist. With Culbert's 2013 presentation it is crucial the exhibition be shaped so that he doesn't look - in a northern hemisphere context - like just another light artist (http://www.bloombergspace.com/archive/2006_19.html) a David Batchelor / Spencer Finch wannabe. It will be very interesting to see how the work is pitched to an international audience.

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