June 3rd, 2010
A trip to New Zealand and the publication of Dick Frizzell-The Painter (2009) by Random House gave me a chance to appraise the Kiwi artist’s work. Last time I was in the country, I wanted to buy his diptych of panels inspired by the original origin of Batman – a work titled (I recall) Crying Boy & Dead Parents by Frizzell, but I was too late.
Like Lichtenstein, Frizzell treats The Green Lantern and The Phantom as objects in the world and therefore as much the proper subjects for painting as sunflowers, cornfields and the usual stuff of still lives. The painting of comic panels rather than comic books as objects immerses you in their world merging intimacy with the brashness of commodity culture. It also plays with the boundaries of mechanical reproduction and the aura of the original work of art.
Frizzell’s early inspiration was, among others, Carl Barks: “I drew Donald Ducks on everybody’s exercise books”. As a child Frizzell revelled in the rebellious energy of British and American comics “The Beano was good (Desperate Dan!)” he recalls in the book, “Eagle wasn’t- too prissy”. Meanwhile Commando Comics “looked like they had been drawn by the art master of a private school”. Frizzell’s celebration of robust yet boyish machismo continues into his own, later works. The rough and tumble jungle tales of the Phantom are subject matter Frizzell returns to again and again with the kind of fascination that seems reserved these days for the comic reading populace of Britain’s former colonies.
But, Desperate Dan not withstanding, Frizzell states “Only Americans seemed to know what a real comic was….Shazam!” He recalls, “I was probably the only kid in Hastings who knew this in 1955. I’ve just remembered an epiphanous moment: When I first said “Batman” out loud-sharing it with someone. “Batman”-it sounded like a completely different word to the silent one in my head.”
It is this sense of intimacy that seperates Frizzell from Lichtenstein. Don’t be fooled by WHAAM! And its ilk. I stood transfixed by the beauty of Lichtenstein’s most famous work but the artist approaches comics at a distance, appalled by the flattening of affect which turns even autobiography into a poster size advert for the gaudy products of capitalism. But Lichtenstein unequivocally addresses the art community in a way I am not sure Frizzell does. He was part of the 1960s Royal Academy generation whose aspirations could equally lie with a career in graphic design. There is no sense of critique in Frizzell’s art. And, indeed, Frizzell worked in advertising and animated TV commercials in New Zealand and brought the characters of Ches & Dale to life for the clients Chesdale, makers of Chesdale Cheese (folksong.org.nz/chesdale/index.html)
The artist also tries to engage with Kiwi culture which figures as an object of frustration and inspiration. Frustration because, in the Sixties, Frizzell found it hard to locate works of Modern Art or even find a place for the modern in the accepted idioms of art school (Christchurch Art school where he followed his mum in 1960 was “stuffy” and left him shell shocked). Still, a series of landscape painting, show Frizzell can ‘do’ fine art with the best of ‘em.
On occasions the artist engages with Maori culture. “I painted up a portrait of a cannibal chief from a Phantom Comic as if I was Goldie portraying a Maori Chief.” His Mickey to Tiki Tu Meke transforms Disney’s brand character into a sacred Maori symbol. But even by Frizzell’s own admission a tour of NZ to find examples of the profaning of this sacred form found few examples and was abandoned as a project.
Perhaps Frizzell’s greatest feat is imagining himself to be an artist. He learnt how to be one from the British movie The Horse’s Mouth and recalls Alec Guinness portraying the stereotypical artist with “rolled up jeans…beared-pallette”. The role of ‘As if’ is important. Frizzell paints ‘as if’ he were the famous New Zealand portrait painter Charles Fredrick Goldie and ‘as if’ he were a Modern Artist. That As has a lot of sea to cover between New Zealand and America-home of the Modern and birth place of the comic book. But it is an imaginative journey many of us have, in different ways, travelled. That makes Frizzell’s work potentially more poignant to comic book fans than Lichtenstein’s magisterial work.