Dick Frizzell’s 2008 exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery returns to the interests of the artist’s self-proclaimed ‘misspent comic-book youth’. Entranced at an early age by comics, Frizzell remarks that it was this source material that originally taught him to draw. As a boy he would spend hours copying from his favourite comic artists. He was drawn particularly to the sharp, graphic, gritty style of several American comics like Batman, superior in the artist’s mind to the heavily illustrated and ‘prissy’ comics such as The Eagle. Above all others however, it was Lee Falk’s 1936 creation: The Phantom, which for Frizzell, encapsulated all that a comic should be (replete with hairy-knuckled baddies).
The Phantom has been the basis for several of Frizzell’s series of works. While the artist is certainly known for the sheer variety of subject matter that he has employed over the years: from local landscape, to road signs, to the now iconic ‘four square man’, comic imagery has retained a prominent and recurring role in his oeuvre. This makes sense in that in many ways Frizzell’s comic-based works embody several elements that are key to his concerns as an artist. Always interested in mixing traditionally high and low forms of art, the comic offers a perfect ‘low’ referent to draw into the realm of fine art. Likewise, comic imagery, with its thick black outlines and flat planes of bight sharp colour offers strong and immediate graphic impact. Frizzell initially worked as a commercial artist after graduating from art school and the influence of this occupation has remained prominent in much of his work. Even his reinvestigation of the same subject matter over the years, unusual in terms of modernist conditioning that implies one can’t go back, is indicative of Frizzell’s identities of stylistic rule breaker and master of pastiche and reinvention.
Perhaps more important than any of these factors however, the Phantom works offer the artist an entirely personal connection with his subject matter. Frizzell painted his first Phantom painting in 1976, stating in 2002 that this was: ‘a private experiment to see if I could make a painting out of something so personal. Looking back it’s funny to think that it should’ve been so difficult to try my own thoughts and enthusiasms as subject.’ This statement highlights Frizzell’s point of difference from the British and American Pop artists of the 1950s and 1960s. Comparisons to these artists, in particular to Roy Lichtenstein are inevitable when examining Frizzell’s comic-based works. However, whereas artists such as Lichtenstein used such source material with irony or empty commentary Frizzell, in his 2002 Phantom show stated: ‘I wanted my low art sources to be honoured a bit more - not being used to ‘comment’, but being used because of real emotional attachment to the source.’
With regard to this statement, the title of this exhibition, Walking Back to Happiness may be read as both a return to a subject matter Frizzell has explored before, but also as articulating the sense of nostalgia that has always been a strong component in the artist’s work. Given the images within the show, the title is also ironic, if affectionately so. Unlike earlier exhibitions featuring the Phantom, within this series the hero rarely makes an appearance. When he does it is in a far less flamboyant way. Instead of depicting the Phantom fighting crime or embracing his lover with panache as in Phantom Kiss (2005), the Phantom here is disguised or portrayed as all-too-human. Mr. Walker has a Cup of Tea for example features the Phantom in his out-of-jungle disguise and in Grieving Phantom and Long Ride Home, the Phantom appears humbled, bowed and sad. Many works do not feature the Phantom at all, instead depicting subjects such as ships at sea or solitary female figures. These works in particular can be read as part of Frizzell’s ongoing investigation into pictorial archetypes. While the original source material for the exhibition is old comics, Frizzell ‘tweaks the images and universalises them a bit’. In creating characters and scenes with strong archetypal features the works unconsciously resonate with a large audience. Scenes such as a plane flying over the ocean in the dead of night, or a car careering off a cliff are all vaguely familiar in our collective memories of a past popular culture. We can thus participate in the artist’s sense of nostalgia while also examining the works as fresh and new.