March 28: Lit

Date #28In photography, we know what we mean when we say a subject is ‘lit’, but there is an idiom of ‘lit’ that is now little used and that implies a physical force in sight.

It may mean ‘fell’ or ‘settled’ as when Harriett Jay (aka Charles Marlowe) in her 1877 The Dark Colleen: A Love Story of 1877, writes; “…the bird lit on the grass on the top of the cliff, close to Truagh’s side.” Moreover, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1897 The Black Arrow extends an ancient Greek conception of the eye projecting vision, as if it too were a bird;

He turned to go home; but even as he turned, his eye lit upon a figure behind a tree. ”Stand!” he cried. ”Who goes?” The figure stepped forth and waved its hand like a dumb person. It was arrayed like a pilgrim, the hood lowered over the face, but Dick, in an instant, recognised Sir Daniel.

So ‘lit’ can mean ‘to land on’ or ‘to settle on’ someone or something, with ‘upon’ replacing ‘on’ in more formal phrasing. It can also mean to ‘arrive at’—an idea or a solution, for example—by chance or without direct agency, as in “The committee lit upon a solution that pleased almost everyone.”

Ancient Greek, pre-socratic philosophers who used analogy to explain the origin of things and the processes of nature, drew on simile to make fundamental assumptions about sight, variously understanding vision as a form of reflection, prompted by the black mirror of the pupil; or as rays from the eye making objects visible (in extramission); or vision as an intromissionist process, in which images or effluences from an external object enter the eye. What that implies for the representation of, or with, light in imagery in which artists continue to generate or employ analogy is answered in the work of a New Zealander.

Today comes the sad news that Bill Culbert has died.  Born in Port Chalmers, near Dunedin on the South Island in 1935 and like compatriots of other generations, Len Lye (1901–1980) and Lloyd Godman (*1952), his art developed from a constant reinvention achieved through a profound—poetic—investigation of the essential mechanics of his medium. Like the Greeks his analogies for sight and light draw on the phenomena of illumination, opacity, shadow, transparency and reflection in materials and prosaic objects he encountered; water, wine glasses, fluorescent tubes, plastic containers. In both black and white photography and sculptural installations Culbert’s works imbue such ordinary things with poetic presence.

Seven Seas 1987 by Bill Culbert born 1935
Bill Culbert (1987) Seven Seas. Wall piece of plastic bottles, fluorescent tubes, electrical wiring.

Initially studying at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University College in Christchurch from 1953 to 1956, Culbert received a National Art Gallery scholarship in 1957 and left New Zealand to study at the Royal College of Art, London, where he produced cubist paintings. From the mid-60s he lived there, and in the tiny hilltop village Croagnes in southern France which he and his wife Pip (1938–2016) found abandoned, and where they purchased a farmhouse for 100 pounds. Periodically he returned to his native New Zealand to exhibit work during the oyster and whitebait seasons. 

Bill Culbert Lampshades, France, 1992 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1992) Lampshades, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25. Image ©Roslyn Oxley Gallery

He parted ways with painting in the mid-1960s to use electric light in his work, making time-based installations composed of ‘walls’ or ‘carpets’ of light bulbs activated by phased electrical switching, a fascination which may be traced back to an experience during WW2. As a nine-year-old beachcomber he found colourful cigarette tins. Prising open one of the lids and peering in, he was surprised to discover unexpected wiring. That evening, the family heard emergency broadcasts warning that booby-trapped tin cans had fallen from the deck of an American military vessel in Cook Strait. His father called the army’s bomb disposal squad.

Bill Culbert Lampshade Frames, France, 2002 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (2002) Lampshade Frames, France. Silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm. Image ©Roslyn Oxley Gallery

In France, Culbert swapped his beach combing for tip-scrounging, searching the décharges, the old-style, informal rubbish dumps of rural France, recently closed in the interests of the environment. His finds (above), photographed on medium-format film, parallel his sculptural work in their subject matter and served his overarching concern with light, represented as obliquely as in these lampshade skeletons, x-rayed by Provençal skies.

Bill Culbert Bonbonne with Landscape, France, 2002 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (2002) Bonbonne with Landscape, France. Silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

The product of his astute observation, these bonbonnes, normally enclosed in wicker and used for transporting water, serve as massive ‘eyes’ to encompass the bucolic landscape behind them.

Bill Culbert Wine Bonbonne with Oak Tree, France, 2002 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (2002) Wine Bonbonne with Oak Tree, France. Silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

The same principle was applied by Culbert when in 2013 he represented New Zealand in their canal-side pavilion at the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà in the 55th Venice Biennale with his exhibition of site-specific work Front Door Out Back. At a window over the rio dei Greci canal in the flooded city he placed his work Level; further bonbonnes, each filled with water to the same height and each presenting a fisheye view of the opposite building, headquarters of the Carabinieri.

Level 2013 AnnJones
Bill Culbert (2013) Level. Bonbonne bottles on rack at 55th Venice Biennale exhibition Front Door Out Back. Photo: Ann Jones 

The photographs, then, are not merely sketches for the sculptural works, but are a means of grasping at rarifed ideas about the nature of light and sight.

Bill Culbert Lit Bulb, France, 1990 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1990) Lit Bulb, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

Each is a joyful discovery; sometimes photographed as seen, elsewhere a reenactment of an earlier observation. Here he challenges us with the counterintuitive phenomenon of the absent shadow of the lit filament, reprising in black and white the puzzle of his 1975 sculpture. The exchange in Culbert’s practice of these two media is rare.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 2.43.52 pm
Bill Culbert (1975) Bulb Box Reflection II. Installation view, Light Show, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2015. Image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph: Alex Davies

Below he demonstrates that, strangely, light appears to penetrate even the dense liquor of red wine to manifest an eye-like image on the stone table-top.

Bill Culbert Small glass pouring Light, France, 1997 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1997) Small glass pouring Light, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

A picture may be taken in 1980 or in 2002, and often (as is the case with the two above, taken seven years apart) in the same setting, but the simple, square format and centred composition, and the deadpan presentation remains the same, belying the depth of his wit, whereby a water-filled wine-glass becomes a lens…

Bill Culbert Wine glass with window, France, 2002 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (2002) Wine glass with window, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

…or wine-glass shadows dream of the drunken celebration to come…

Bill Culbert Wine Work, France, 1992 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1992) Wine Work, France. Slver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

…or the distorted shadow of an ancient window pane stands in for spilt milk…

Bill Culbert Jug, window pane, France, 1980 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1980) Jug, window pane, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

…or a makeshift and weather-beaten bus-shelter performs a delightfully spooky shadow-play…

Bill Culbert Light Box, France, 1989 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1989) Light Box, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

From another instance of rural ‘street photography’, made on-the-fly, is his discovery of this phantom script projected cryptically on a hotel facade by reflection from the back of its own metal sign.

Bill Culbert Hotel, Florence, 1992 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (1992) Hotel, Florence. Slver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25

Sometimes their inspiration for his sculptures is quite apparent in his photographs such as this one of a wet plastic bottle, the object he so frequently uses (or re-uses) in his found-object fluorescent-lit works.

Bill Culbert Wet Plastic Bottle, France, 2002 silver gelatin prints 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Bill Culbert (2002) Wet Plastic Bottle, France. Silver gelatin print 40.5 × 40.5cm Edition of 25
Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 2.50.46 pm
Bill Culbert (2004) Strait (White), fluorescent light, plastic bottles 30 x 120 x 12 cm. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Culbert  had his first solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1977 and participated in the first Auckland Triennial in 2001. Permanent commissioned Culbert sculptures may be found in London, Wellington and Auckland, and many are collaborative works with Ralph Hotere. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to art, particularly sculpture, in 2008.

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