In a sense the fine exhibition called Landscapes by Karl Maugham and Dick Frizzell at the Gow Langsford Gallery is art that has come full circle since the great outburst of ‘modern’ art here last century. When I began writing about art in the 60s landscape was the most admired genre and this was emphasised by the prominence of the Kelliher Prize, the country’s richest at that time. For the serious artists coming out of the art school it had become anathema. The artists that roared to the front were Abstractionist, Expressionist, Figure painters, Collagists and any other avant-garde movement. It was all showing at the pioneering Auckland galleries Barry Lett Gallery or New Vision Gallery. That fine landscape painter Peter McIntyre was an object of derision in advanced art circles. Curiously, outside and above the controversies was Colin McCahon. The key to his work was that he used the landscape to express profound spiritual insights far removed from simple illustration. He was a religious painter in the broadest sense.
None of the painting in the current Gow Langsford show are religious in any but the most general of senses. Dick Frizzell is a chronicler. He shows in dashing painting the way things are. He began by showing the simplest realities of life: the clothesline in the backyard, the tin of salmon in the cupboard, the sheep slaughtered and hung up to feed the dogs, the produce signs by the side of the road, the recipe stuck to wall, the stoves in Antarctic bases, all the plenitude of life painted with extraordinary skill in a direct way with energy, wit and fine draughtsmanship.
Unexpectedly, in the late 1980s he began to paint landscapes and has done so intermittently ever since. They are often scenes that you might glimpse from a car. Roads often play a part. One memorable series was of nameless side roads leading to unknown destinations off the main highway. Some were memorable notably the hills, pines and petrol station in, Tarawera Rest Stop, featured in Christopher Johnson’s fine book, Landscapes of New Zealand.
That was in 1989 and was a large painting as are the seven paintings in the current show. Then first you encounter is a great heap of blackened logs in a field. This is in a tradition of representations of burnt timber in New Zealand paint but it has never been done so monumentally. The intricate variety of the black shapes fine drawing as well as rich painting. By contrast is a tidy clump of trees just over a fence planted by the farmer as some sort of futures insurance. Dark River valley is a study as a river winds beneath dark shady hills. These are exceptionally fine work but are trumped by an aerial view of the little town of Laurence in the South Island. The town grew up flourish when gold was found nearby in Gabriel’s Gully and now is a tourist site of sorts. With detail but never finicky, Frizzell captures the old and the new buildings and unites them in a unity of tone that puts it beyond any bright tourist photo but rather makes a memorable painting rich with detail and the atmosphere and essence of a small town.
The work by that master of large paintings, Karl Maugham is more romantic and done with more conspicuous flourish. His paintings are of specific gardens and almost all show a path way dappled by shadows that leads between crowded flowering bushes. He has the virtuoso painter’s ability to dazzle with the sense of coloured detail of masses of touches of colour done virtuous dash when seen close up which transform into splendid masses of recognisable varieties of plants and blooms when seen any distance. The richness and immediacy of the painting appeal as much as the subject garden. The flowers are rich with colour and vividly exuberant but the style of painting gives them life.