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Bill Culbert creates mysterious and poetic works with light

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Bill Culbert, Small Glass Pouring Light

Bill Culbert | Slow Wonder

Auckland Art Gallery

Until November 21

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Concepts of space, vision and light have  fascinated artists for centuries and one of the crucial turning points in the artists use of light came with Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb and later the fluorescent tube. The New Zealand artist Bill Culbert who spent most of his career in Europe focused on light and light producing bulbs is being recognised in the  major exhibition “Slow Wonder” at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Bill Culbert, Central Station

While a presence in New Zealand art for fifty years Culbert was a central figure internationally and while he had regular show in this country he was in demand throughout the world for inclusion in major shows.

One of the high points of his career came  in 2013 when he was selected as the New Zealand representative at the Venice Biennale.

Opening that exhibition Sir Nicholas Serota (Director of the Tate Modern) noted that if New Zealand hadn’t shown Culbert the artist would have been put forward for the British pavilion.

Bill Culbert’s work has been central to a number of areas of contemporary art particularly around the use of light, new approaches to vision and the treatment of space, investigating the almost filmic quality of light operating over time.


His work always seems to be referencing the history of art and artists such as the Renaissance exploration of perspective and the use of the camera obscura as a means of creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. His work also connects with the ideas around  abstraction and the elements of line, form and space without the need for narrative or representation.

His work has parallels with innovative artists such as Joseph Beuys and light artist Anthony McCall and demonstrates an ability to combine philosophical purism along with the creation of visual jokes. There are also links to writers such as the Argentinian writer Borges around the creation of parallel spaces and realities.

Slow Wonder brings together a selection of work from across the artists career to show how he has developed his approach to light and the creation of three-dimensional works with works connected to his use of  the incandescent bulb and white fluorescent tubes.

The very first work in the exhibition “Outline” (1978) is a metaphor for the way in which he used light. The blacked out square box is both an attempt to contain and control light as well as a way of using it to create a three-dimensional space from light. It also shows the way that he uses projections of light as well as shadows and outlines.

A  couple of other works in the first room of the exhibition are homages to the light bulb with “Reflections” (1971) and “Bulb Box Shadow” (1971)  both of which features single bulbs presented  as small theatrical events.

One of the works “Spacific Plastics” (2001) is similar to a work he produced for his Venice Biennale show entitled “Flotsam”. It consists of dozens of coloured plastic containers and fluorescent tubes. The title and the material was a reference to all the flotsam which bobs the canals of Venice. “Spacific Plastics” is a similar ecological statement about the increased presence of plastics in the Pacific Ocean.

Some of the early works show an interest in combining the fluorescent tube and corrugated iron as in “Black Point” (1978) which hints at his  future collaborations with Ralph Hotere with the large tube and iron in “Black Light” (not in the show) while “Moonlight Creek” (1978) where he has used light to separate two halves of a large stone prefigures the collabortive “Fault” (1994) which slices through the facade of City Gallery, Wellington.

Culbert is also a photographer and his black-and-white images are something of a diary record, documenting his experiments and showing the genesis of many of his ideas. So  “Small Glass Pouring Light” (1997) recording his “discovery” of the light bulb shape cast by a wine glass had other iterations including the  large installation “Small Glass Pouring Light” (1983) featuring two dozen of the glasses.

Bill Culbert, Small Glass Pouring Light

There are several large installations such as “An Explanation” of Light” (1984) where neon tubes pierce some French doors, the reflections both in the doors as well as the large window onto Albert Park giving the work depth and mystery as though entering a new dimension.

Another feature of the artist’s work is his transformation of the everyday object into something both magical and meaningful. It is not just the wine glass which gets changed and transformed he also uses a variety of other objects including plastic containers. “Cascade” features  a set of plastic containers pierced by a tube glowing with a purity, the caps of the containers  providing the only vestiges of colour. His “Easter Island”  (1994) is on of the more explicit political pieces, with the glowing seven little yellow  bottles of “venero” (poison) providing a contrast between purity and toxicity.

Bill Culbert, Stand Still

Among his other larger sculptural works is “Stand Still”  (1987) where he adds various items to dress up florescent tubes – lampshades, a bucket, a bottle and two jugs while with “Central Station” (1996) which becomes a location of transition he adds fluorescent tubes to lampstands having discarded the old incandescent bulbs for the  newer lighting form He also draws attention to the snaking black extension cords and  transformers which are often the disguised or hidden parts of light installations.

This theme of transition can also be seen in works such as “Hokitika Return Journey” (1978) which is both a reference to the artist peripatetic journeys as well as the changing social and political nature of the West Coast. That area is also referenced  in “Reefton Cloud” (1978) where  a florescent tube hovers over a lump of charred wood. This is a reference to Reefton, which  in 1888  became the first place in New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity.

Bill Culbert, Reefton Cloud

Throughout the exhibition we witness an artist using the simple material  of lightbulb and fluorescent light tubes along with found materials to create mysterious and poetic works that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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