At primary school we had to cover our exercise books in brown paper then decorate the paper. I would cover mine in all sorts of drawings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
It wasn’t long until I was singled out for being the person who could do this thing that other people wanted. So there would be this queue of people around the classroom to my desk while they waited for me to draw a picture on their book.
My parents wouldn’t let me take art in my first year of school certificate. I would always get the art prize at the end of the year in intermediate, but once it go to high school they thought it was too much of a commitment. My father was always terrified that because I was ‘arty’ I would end up being gay or starving in a garage. They wanted be to be a surveyor, so I took Maths and English instead. Later I made a deal with them that if I failed English I could take art the following year. I’d never failed anything up until that point, so it had to be deliberate. I nearly buggered it up though, because I became so interested in the paper and got 41 percent and 50 was a pass.
At high school I would sometimes get teased for being the ‘arty’ kid, but I was quite happy being a freak. That’s the one thing that dawned on me when I got to art school. Everybody there was that one ‘freak’ from their own school. Then the fear was, okay how good are you going to be amongst this lot? But we were all pretty even and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t a competition. None of us actually believed that we’d ever become artists, particularly because there was no art scene like there is now.
I wasn’t particularly obsessed with any art notion. I would just do a painting based on what I thought a painting should look like. At school, art looked like the stuff you’d see in the magazines from overseas, so we’d try to make our work look like that.It took me years to figure out that what the artist is basically doing is illustrating their own opinion. It never occurred to me that my opinion could actually be different to somebody else’s.
I got married and had a baby when I was still at university, so my life quickly became about being able to make a living. As an artist, commercial art supposedly threatened your credibility and intellectual integrity, but that never bothered me because I didn’t have a reputation. I had nothing to lose because nobody knew who the hell I was, so it wasn’t like I was taking any risks. I created a fake portfolio of advertisements and because they were very cartoon-like I was directed to an animation studio where I ended up working for three years. Following that, I got a job at an advertising agency working with Bob Harvey, the old mayor. Everything they teach you in advertising, is what they don’t teach you in art school, so my big idea was to take what I had learnt from both of these fields and put them together.
My son Otis was at Ponsonby primary school with a lot of Pacific Island kids. One day his friend came over for lunch and brought a tin of fish, with a bright red label and bad illustrations that were slightly out of register, with the headline ‘Plaza Mackeral,’ and I thought this is exactly what I’m looking for! I cut the label off and flattened it out onto cardboard, grabbed an old canvas in the studio and basically just copied it, in a quick and sloppy enamel paint sort of style. It didn’t have a dry statement about consumerism, it was simply just the subject matter of my painting. Next thing, I was down at the shop buying anything that was in a tin.
The opening for that exhibition was great. A friend of ours had designed a dance that was all about fish mating. My wife and her friends dressed up in mermaid outfits and cut holes into a big piece of blue cellophane which they stood in, moving it around like the sea. We wrote a song based on the small print on the tin of fish about natural oils, which another person sang, it was a whole theatrical experience. You couldn’t get through the door, the queue went all the way down the road.
From that point on, I was more or less on my way. The idea that something will just come to you if you sit around and wait is ridiculous, that’s never going to happen. You have to go out and look at something. I find that my ideas always come from the weirdest places, because it’s the impure thoughts that provide the information. Everyone is terrified of the ordinary because they think it’s going to make them look ordinary. People are so desperate to be taken seriously all the time that they will only look for that serious angle, which is a huge error, because in doing that you miss the obvious. My whole gig is just doing the obvious. While everyone else is trying to be creative and clever, I just go away and do the first thing that comes to my head instead of second guessing myself. I always say, ‘the quickest route to a good idea is a couple of bad ones.’
When I got an art council grant to go to America, I secretly thought I’d never come back. I got to meet Neil Cheney, one of the new image artists I had written to and he wouldn’t even look at me. He just sat in front of me and read the paper. I said to him, ‘why did you agree to speak to me if you didn’t want to talk?’ He put the paper down and said, ‘I hate artists but your accent intrigued me so I wanted to see what you looked like.’ He looked at my work and said, ‘Do you seriously think you’re going to come to my country all the way from New Zealand and understand it enough to comment on it? If you’re going to do anything significant you need to have a completely intuitive and free understanding of where you are and you’ll never understand America, go back to New Zealand. Your job as an artist is to help define itself and figure out where it’s going.’ I took him very seriously! I came home, looked around and thought, okay, what can I do to draw attention to where we live.
Each exhibition would normally seed the next one, like writing an album. But after ‘Everybody’s Business,’ I had no ideas whatsoever. By this stage I’d had about nine years on the trot of being an artist, which was a dream come true, so I certainly wasn’t impressed with the idea of being a non-artist. Then I had the best idea I’ve ever had. Instead of being a non-artist, I would just be a bad artist, so I started painting landscapes. The public loved them and the critics hated them. They thought I’d given up and gone daft. They said, ‘Why would an artist like Dick with all of these puns, jokes and crazy juxtapositions paint something as stupid as a tree and a road.’
The landscapes got bigger and more exhausting, but one day in the studio I saw the most abstract shape that looked almost like a tiki. It struck me then that it was interesting you could generate the tiki message without using any maori art forms. At the time, everyone was having a go at Gordon Walters for his koru abstract designs saying that he shouldn’t be doing it. Yet Ralph Hotere was painting European abstracts, so I thought – how can he use my tribe, but I can’t use his?
My plan was to research the idea of these tikis and just make a small comment about it, but my designers got bigger and more outrageous, to the point where I could definitely tell that shit was going to come down the pipe. There was a lot of excitement and buzz going around about me challenging the notion of cultural blow and what not, but I had a huge confidence crisis at one point. My dealers told me I had gone insane and no one would buy these pieces, I was getting called a cultural assassin and people were having meetings about it, it was amazing. It was the same year that a maori activist had stopped Air New Zealand from giving out plastic tikis, so everything had suddenly become about purifying the culture, which I thought was a sure way to kill it. I tried to create no gaps for anyone to get in and unpick it, my plan was to keep the argument totally academic.
The biggest lesson I learnt is that you’re never going to be ready. There is no such thing as being one hundred percent ready. You do have to inform yourselves as much as possible, but you can never be totally informed because there’s always unknowables. You just have to take the leap of faith. I’ve met people who have said they’re not ready to do something and they never end up doing anything, because they spend all of their time sitting around waiting to be ready.
The second point, is to do everything properly. No matter what it is. The one thing you decide to do cynically, is the one thing that will turn up years later and bite you in arse. There’s an old country-western song that says, ‘do what you do, do well.’ It’s so basic, yet some people just don’t seem to get it. Life is longer than you think and people never forget.
I’ve always been lucky that these weird lurches have always been because of a moment. I’ve had people say to me that reference inhibits spontaneity. To me, reference enables spontaneity. Every artist, writer or dancer has a process leading up to their final work. It’s always because you’ve read this, spoken to someone about that, or there was some injustice that really bothered you. When an artist has an exhibition, they’re expressing their own opinion, same scenario if you write a novel and you can speak about your opinion just as much as you’ve painted it, otherwise what the hell else are you doing? You know the famous saying – ‘fail to prepare and prepare to fail,’ You can never over-prepare, it’s impossible.
I was asked the other day what it is about me that the big institutions struggle with and I said, ‘I’ve committed the ultimate sin of being understood.’