Light has been something of a preoccupation in New Zealand’s shortish art history. Of course, New Zealand is not particularly special in that preoccupation but there is no doubt that there is an unrelenting bite to its quality. Whether one accepts the geographical determinism that was offered up as the driving force in so much sharply delineated painting in the 20th century or not, there is an experience of light and its capacity to throw the folds and ravines of Aotearoa into extraordinary relief which, if not unique, feels particular to New Zealand. Even New Zealander’s continue to be surprised by it – witness regular seasonal sunburn.
Bill Culbert’s practice is without question mediated by light. But rather than stay in New Zealand he spent much of his life living in France – Provence, the domain of Cézanne in particular, but more broadly the Impressionists. Whether it was the more atmospheric or poetic light that attracted Bill or that he shared McCahon’s sentiment that NZ was a “landscape with too few lovers” that drove him there. There was no doubt that his life and work would always be spread between two geographical poles, two landscapes, two differently illuminated worlds and that he seemed destined to happily straddle that distance and its accompanying contradictions.
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