They make for a strange cavalcade. Tui and huia, diggers and dancers, farmers, feathers and solitary jesters, slipping between abstraction and figuration, the weightiness of bronze and the ephemerality of the perforated plane. “I love stories,” says Palmerston North sculptor Paul Dibble. “Stories are the catalyst to get going, but eventually they have to be woven into an aesthetic language of scale, line and mass.”
For over 35 years, Dibble has insinuated New Zealand folklore and landscape into a sculptural practice that draws on mythology, European art history, colonialism and Pacific culture. Much of his work lies in the public domain – across the country, Pacific combs rake the sky; giant anchor stones lay claim to the land; figures, frail or heroic, morph into a tattooed geometry of spheres and cones and flattened forms. There is humour here and high drama – rabbits bound with ominous glee, miniature buildings balance on the heads of giant fish, three-dimensional forms dissolve into two-dimensional outlines.
In Palmerston North, a tuatara, monumental and weathered, faces off a bold, blithe young dancer. The Long Horizon works (one famously stolen and held for ransom from a cafe in Waikanae) align a recumbent figure, a collation of curves and angles, with the horizon. And long-legged walkers, including the inquisitive Maui, pass through a mythic portal into a new imagined space. “People walking through, shapes at right angles – this is interesting spatially. I like those imposing forces.”
There is gravity in these works – both in the material (silicon bronze and, more recently, Corten steel) and in the shadow of European modernism: Alexander Archipenko, Jean Arp, Ossip Zadkine. But there is also a lightness that contradicts the medium. “As soon as you make a hole in something, you lighten it – you see that in Pacific Island and Maori carving. Much as I like European and American modernist art, much of it is very solid and heavy. We are a land of light images, light houses. When you come back to New Zealand, you see all these different colours in this amazing collage – that’s us.”
Included in the substantial new book Paul Dibble: The Large Works is Hauraki Plains Pioneer, the bent back of a digger epitomising the hard labour that went into turning a floodplain of swamp and kahikatea into productive farmland. This is the place of Dibble’s childhood, in the tiny farming settlement of Waitakaruru. “They used to burn the peat, there’d be ash everywhere, then we’d pull out the kahikatea stumps exposed by the shrinking peat and hopefully get farmland down. My father was an old man before he actually got a farm.” It was, he says, a very sculptural place. Against the wide flat landscape, the vertical lines of trees, power poles and fence posts appeared in stark silhouette. Houses were built in pits – you’d dig a hole, take the stumps out, build your house “and wait for the rest of the land to sink down”, says Dibble. “When you get into a situation where you lower the earth, that is quite an interesting visual thing.”
What art there was resided in war memorials, usually made in Italy and dropped, often bizarrely, into the Hauraki landscape. “They become part of our history and part of our culture but they are strange, like something landed from outer space.” Dibble studied at Elam, a country boy thrown into a brave new world of art, music (four-piece jazz bands playing in underground coffee bars) and literature. “Most of the people at art school had been to good schools and were far more sophisticated and worldly than I was. I knew nothing about art.” His tutors included Jim Allen, who was exploring conceptual and installation art, and the “inspirational” Colin McCahon. When McCahon realised the young Dibble could cast bronze and had even built his own foundry, he introduced him to Group architect James Hackshaw. The introduction led to a number of commissions making candlesticks, altars and tabernacles for local churches, integrating local motifs into the stories of the Old Testament.
In the meantime, Dibble was working on his own work, testing smaller works on a young gallery market (today his works range from 35mm to over five metres in height) and taking on private commissions. After many years’ teaching, Dibble now works work full-time on his art, often alongside his partner, artist Fran Dibble, negotiating the time-consuming ceramic shell and lost wax and sand casting processes in a massive warehouse in Palmerston North. “I like the physical process – I don’t like making art over a telephone. The problem solving, altering things – that to me is what it is all about.”
The book culminates with the New Zealand War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London, designed by Dibble and John Hardwick-Smith of Athfield Architects. Dismissing having a single heroic monument, they constructed a regiment of cross-shaped bronze “standards” leaning into the ground like the standing stones of ancient burial or worship sites. “It’s a much more sympathetic way for a New Zealand memorial to be structured. It’s lighter, it has an elegance. The other memorials [at Hyde Park] are very heavy; beautiful but serious. This has a temporary lightness that I tend to keep in my sculpture. I like to think that strikes a chord.”
PAUL DIBBLE: THE LARGE WORKS (David Bateman, $125); THE GHOST OF THE HUIA AND THE ORCHARD, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, until October 27.