New Zealand D-Photo

Profile | Bill Culbert

The photograph­ic underpinni­ngs of Bill Culbert, one of the country’s most celebrated conceptual artists, are explored in an exciting new exhibition, curated by Julia Waite, that brings together pieces from across a remarkable career

- WORDS | ADRIAN HATWELL

Bill Culbert occupies a unique position in Aotearoa’s art history. Over a career spanning seven decades, the artist was variously known as a painter, photograph­er, sculptor, and installati­on artist. Bill, who died in 2019, left a legacy of expansive curiosity that has, in some ways very literally, had a hand in shaping New Zealand’s visual character.

Having moved to London in the late 1950s, becoming part of Europe’s exciting contempora­ry art community, Bill found acclaim internatio­nally before his artistic contributi­ons were properly celebrated back home. However, by the time of his death the artist was one of Aotearoa’s best known — he had represente­d the country in the prestigiou­s Venice Biennial, held numerous solo shows throughout the world, and various of his sculptures now have a permanent position as part of City Gallery Wellington, on the Wellington waterfront, and inside Te Papa.

Best known of Culbert’s works are his sculptures involving fluorescen­t tubes and everyday objects. While their interrogat­ion of light as a medium may be clear, these pieces also flag a preoccupat­ion with the photograph­ic process that has remained a central thread in Bill’s work since the very beginning. A major new exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Ta¯ maki, Bill Culbert | Slow Wonder, sets out to make clear this photograph­ic connection in a career-spanning exploratio­n of the man’s practice.

FROM THE DARK CHAMBER

Billed as a “backstory of how Culbert’s investigat­ions began,” Slow Wonder takes visitors back in time to a period of experiment­ation and discovery for the artist while he was living in London and France. Perhaps more than any Culbert exhibition to date, the show links Bill’s interrogat­ion of light with an abiding fascinatio­n with the photograph­ic process.

Exhibition curator Julia Waite explains how the works, largely from the time between 1968 and the mid ’80s, illuminate a practice dominated by the qualities of light and the way it behaves in space.

“Central to these investigat­ions, though somewhat hidden in the shadows, was the magical camera obscura — an object which had been critical to the developmen­t of art, especially for painters,” says Julia.

Culbert was not interested in using the camera obscura as painters working in earlier centuries did — to aid the accurate representa­tion of perspectiv­e. His motivation­s were conceptual­ly

driven as he committed himself to a seemingly endless questionin­g of the way light and objects physicalis­ed the experience of perception.” Although the exhibition does not cover Culbert’s earliest days of making in art in Aotearoa — initially as a schoolboy at Wellington’s Hutt Valley High School and later as a student at Christchur­ch’s Ilam School of Fine Arts — Julia notes that it was during this time that Bill first came in contact with a camera obscura. Interactin­g with the early photograph­ic device left a powerful impression. “He reimagined a camera obscura for his first major light installati­on, Cubic Projection­s, 1968, and continued experiment­ing with its form in the early 1970s,” Julia recalls. “References to the obscura also appear in his photograph­s, including one in which Culbert restages an eclipse, and another of a large glass container filled with water-refracting light.”

It was a painting scholarshi­p that first gave Bill the opportunit­y to travel to Europe, but once there he would eventually transition from painting to the electric light sculptures and installati­ons he would become famed for. Whatever the medium, however, Bill never found himself far from photograph­y; he created many photograph­s observing the effects of natural light and documentin­g the visual phenomena created by his own sculptures.

Julia has pored over interviews from

throughout the artist’s long-running career and has found references to the camera obscura at many different stages. Bill would often hint at the object’s significan­ce, both physically and conceptual­ly, right through to his later days.

“Even as late as 2012, on the eve of his exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Culbert again mentioned the experience of that first obscura he stepped inside in his school,” she notes.

LIGHT IN SPACE

While Bill’s mediums may have changed over time, there is one element that unifies the works at all of his different stages: a fascinatio­n with the character and nature of light. It’s a fixation any photograph­er can easily understand, although the extent of Bill’s enquiries over the years may be unequalled. Julia describes the artist’s attraction to light as follows:

“Light was ubiquitous, versatile, and mysterious in terms of its behaviour in space. It appealed to Culbert for its everydayne­ss. It was also powerfully connected to the experience of perception, phenomena, and cognition.”

Bill entered London’s Royal College of Art in 1957 and spent a decade dedicated to painting. He encountere­d such teachers as Maurice de Sausmarez, who encouraged Bill to investigat­e areas beyond artistic tradition. This path led him to the Hornsey College of Art, where he experiment­ed with light in a ‘visual research’ studio with the influentia­l British artist Stuart Brisley.

“He makes the critical break from painting in 1968, which was a time of great political unrest and saw the rising up of students and workers in the UK and France,” says Julia. “Culbert was undoubtedl­y influenced by the politics of the period, as his work evolves into something more experienti­al for the viewer.”

Although his earliest photograph­s are not published in any readily available form, Bill’s consistent use

of photograph­y is well documented. Whether as a secondary medium during his painting period, recording the luminous effects of a three-dimensiona­l sculpture, or as a piece of work unto itself, it is clear that the photograph held an unwavering appeal to the artist. For Julia, photograph­y is critical to Culbert’s mode of conceptual­ism. “He talked about his black-and-white photograph­y in terms of ‘thinking through the camera’, and this could be read two ways: thoughts running through the camera to focus on the subject and subsequent image, and a considerat­ion of the mechanical structure of the camera itself.” Bill’s best-known works may fall under different branches of visual arts, but photograph­y can never be far away in any analysis of the artist’s light works.

IMAGE AND OBJECT

Sculpture, installati­on, and photograph­y are all closely connected in Bill’s work. Even behind pieces that have no photo elements to them, the spectre of the photograph­ic process can still be felt, as Julia explains.

“Often, Culbert would record in film a scenario he either encountere­d or constructe­d, and then elaborate on the idea in the photograph in threedimen­sional form,” she says. “Much of the sculpture and installati­on utilises photograph­ic principles and

processes. Examples of this are all the early reverse camera obscura sculptures, such as Cubic Projection­s, 1968. Late installati­ons, such as Spacific Plastics, 2001, can also be understood in the context of photograph­y and especially photomonta­ge.”

Cubic Projection­s comprises a plastic ball, 60cm in diameter, covered in pinholes. Light radiates out from within the sphere, projecting shapes upon the installati­on walls. Spacific Plastics sees a group of different-coloured pastel Tupperware containers arranged around a series of fluorescen­t tubes, creating a montage of refracted light. Running across nine gallery spaces, the Slow Wonder exhibition explores this strong connection between Bill’s sculpture and photograph­y as a central thread. Julia points to the pairing of the photograph­s Clay, Sun, Shadow I & II and the sculpture Daylight to Nightlight, Five Cubes to Black as a powerful illustrati­on of this theme.

“In both works, Culbert investigat­es the relationsh­ip between light and time by

placing different stages of the day next to each other. Both works powerfully convey the physical nature of light and time.”

The artist’s use of everyday and discarded objects in his artwork also finds a link back to Bill’s photograph­ic interrogat­ion of light. Central to many of his pieces are found objects, such as used plastic bottles, battered tin drums, wine glasses, old furniture, and various other elements of refuse. Many of these objects were repurposed from a rubbish dump near the artist’s house in Croagnes, France. Julia connects Bill’s fascinatio­n with the intangibil­ity of light to the immaterial­ity of rubbish and other old objects.

“Rubbish has been wrested from expectatio­ns of everyday functional­ity,” she says. “Culbert recharges that which has been discarded, bringing it back into circulatio­n and challengin­g our perception­s of what constitute­s fine art.” This practice also reflects the emerging environmen­tal themes of Bill’s art. Julia explains that, rather than introduce even more new things into the world, the artist preferred to work with objects already in existence.

“He began incorporat­ing everyday recycled materials into his art in the mid 1970s, and his concerns for the environmen­t stretch back to this time and reflect a belief in the importance of ordinary things as capable of engaging creative thinking and the imaginatio­n.” Bill Culbert died 28 March 2019, at his home in Provence, France, at the age of 84. A painter, photograph­er, sculptor, and installati­on artist, Bill has left us with an expansive oeuvre to treasure. Bill Culbert | Slow Wonder presents an

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 ??  ?? BILL CULBERT, “SUNSET I” (PHOTOGRAPH), 1990. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O T MAKI, GIFT OF THE PATRONS OF THE AUCKLAND ART GALLERY, 2001
BILL CULBERT, “SUNSET I” (PHOTOGRAPH), 1990. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O T MAKI, GIFT OF THE PATRONS OF THE AUCKLAND ART GALLERY, 2001
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 ??  ?? 33 BILL CULBERT, “SMALL GLASS POURING LIGHT” (PHOTOGRAPH), 1997. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, GIFT OF THE PATRONS OF THE AUCKLAND ART GALLERY, 2001
33 BILL CULBERT, “SMALL GLASS POURING LIGHT” (PHOTOGRAPH), 1997. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, GIFT OF THE PATRONS OF THE AUCKLAND ART GALLERY, 2001
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 ??  ?? BILL CULBERT, “SPACIFIC PLASTICS”, (INSTALLATI­ON DETAIL), 2001. CHARTWELL COLLECTION. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, 2009
BILL CULBERT, “SPACIFIC PLASTICS”, (INSTALLATI­ON DETAIL), 2001. CHARTWELL COLLECTION. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, 2009
 ??  ?? BILL CULBERT, “SMALL GLASS POURING LIGHT” (INSTALLATI­ON), 1983
BILL CULBERT, “SMALL GLASS POURING LIGHT” (INSTALLATI­ON), 1983
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 ??  ?? BILL CULBERT, “AN EXPLANATIO­N OF LIGHT” (INSTALLATI­ON), 2021. THE BILL & PIP CULBERT TRUST. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, 2021
BILL CULBERT, “AN EXPLANATIO­N OF LIGHT” (INSTALLATI­ON), 2021. THE BILL & PIP CULBERT TRUST. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, 2021
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 ??  ?? 39 BILL CULBERT, “STAND STILL” (INSTALLATI­ON), 1987. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, PURCHASED 1988
39 BILL CULBERT, “STAND STILL” (INSTALLATI­ON), 1987. AUCKLAND ART GALLERY TOI O TĀMAKI, PURCHASED 1988

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