Bill Culbert

Twenty-one years after departing his native shores on a National Art Gallery travelling fellowship, Bill Culbert, painter and more recently sculptor of light, has returned as a University of Canterbury visiting fellow. The awarding of the fellowship to an expatriate artist is a unique distinction: but then Culbert's successes in Europe have by no means been unexceptional.

Three years after arrival in Britain he graduated from London's Royal College of Art with a silver medal and first class honours. He then spent a year working in France before moving to Nottingham for a period of three years as resident artist at the University. At the same time he commenced intermittent teaching in London art schools, a practice which he still maintains. From 1966 until 1972 he was a senior lecturer in painting at Nottingham School of Art, moving thereafter to France for a further year before returning to his present base in London. He has exhibited widely in Brighton, Bristol, Coventry, Edinburgh, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham and London, Berlin, Rottweil and Philadelphia. And he designed a stage set! light structure for Frederick Ashton's ballet Lament of the Waves, performed by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

BILL CULBERT Bulb Box Reflection 2 1975
(Brooke / Gifford Gallery)

Culbert's easy manner persuades one that he has stepped back a couple of decades and twenty thousand kilometres with customary antipodean easel as comfortable in his Alma Mater as if he had never been away, But is that so?, With what expectations and reactions does an artist like him - his being and his work totally imbued with the sophistication and internationalism of Europe - return after such a long absence? It may be with a certain nostalgia, a romantic longing for the land of corrugated iron and number eight fencing wire. At least that is the impression gained from a view of Culbert's New Zealand works shown in an exhibition organised for a short tour by the Brooke / Gifford Gallery in Christchurch and sponsored by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council.

Students have been able to witness Culbert, the artist and teacher, in seminars and workshops. But his principal and most public offering was not to be made within any conventional academic context: it was in this exhibition. Partly assembled from works brought with him and dating from 1970 to 1975, and partly the residue of his rediscovery of a stamping ground of old, the West Coast, the exhibition confronted student and public alike with an extraordinary contrast. The European works are marked by a sophistication of means, by a purity and elegance, and an extraordinary subtlety achieved with the most limited of means: the New Zealand works in contrast, by a roughness and directness, discarded materials and fluorescent tubes assembled in unexpected juxtapositions. Tubes are thrust through a suitcase (Hokitika 'Return Journey'); strapped to sprayed corrugated iron (Black's point); or strapped to and pushed through corrugated iron in the form of a cross (Blackwater). Could it be that these are the product of some mysterious force in the New Zealand social and physical environment, a force which subverts control, craftsmanship and delicacy in the interests of improvisation and momentary solutions, which brings about a rude technique and brutal directness? Or are they more properly the outcome of romantic ideas about the nature of one's birthplace formed in youth and nurtured by distance? A set of romantic expectations confirmed by a narrowly selective re-experience and determined by positive expectations?

How these works will fit into the continuing development of Culbert's work - as painter, sculptor or photographer - is not clear: but if, as Paul Overy asserts in a review from The Times in January of last year, 'Culbert uses the simple electric light bulb to create powerful metaphors about our relationship with our natural and artificial environment', his return has meant for him a rediscovery of the harsh southern light, the rawness of the confrontation between man-made and natural objects, tamed and untamed landscape in this country. It has also meant an affirmation of respect for the ad hoc technology which has become such an ineradicable part of our national mythology.

BILL CULBERT installation of Outline 1970 in the Serpentine Gallery, London

Richer for me were the multiples Culbert brought with him: works such as Bulb Reflection 1 which, by exploiting a one-way mirror and conventional mirror, produces an infinite number of reflections of a light bulb and the box within which it is contained. Ever since my childhood book with its cover showing a teddy sitting in bed reading a book showing a teddy sitting in bed reading a book showing a..., I have been suspicious of easy mind benders like this: but there can be no doubt that Culbert has translated the idea into exquisite form in this piece.

And Celeste, a translucent cube containing a bulb within a pin hole peppered black box. A camera obscura inside out, the form of the light-giving lamp is projected on to the cube in dozens of images from gently shifting perspectives: each image, like that produced by the pin hole camera which it approximates, beautifully and softly diffused by the action of light passing through the tiny holes.

The light bulb as both source of light and source of darkness occurs in photographs intended as sketches, shorthand notes of ideas for later translation into independent works. As a light-giving object in one photograph, it nevertheless casts its own shadow in the presence of natural light. In sculptural terms this enigma becomes an unlit light bulb reflected in a mirror with the filament burning in the reflection. The trick (if it is that) is a second burning bulb behind a one-way mirror inside a black box opposite the visible bulb, and it is its filament the viewer sees.

Culbert's ideas are richer than the optical trickery suggested by descriptions such as these: they open up the imagination, posing perceptual riddles. For my part the most rewarding, although certainly not the most technologically intriguing piece was Outline 1970, a 30cm black cube which emitted light along its edges painting new perspectives over the top of old ones in darkened rooms. In the confined space of the Brooke / Gifford Gallery's small room it was constrained and restricted, hinting only at the purity and chastened order which its new spatial delimitations can provide. In an earlier installation at the Serpentine Gallery London (sadly only reproduced in the catalogue), three such cubes were combined lacing their perspectives of light together in a complex and magical spatial lattice-work - reconditioning totally one's conception of the space in which they were located.

What a pity we have not been treated to more of these European works where simplicity of execution and conception are so perfectly married to Culbert's enigmatic concepts of lightness and darkness. But the significance of the. New Zealand works, less appealing, so tentative by comparison, may turn out yet to be greater than we expect. In them may lie the germ of a new idea, capable of generating works which will find their final realisation in Britain. If that is the case, then the fellowship may have been as profitable for Culbert as it has for us.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 11 Spring 1978