Curatorial Art Practice in London
What interests me is exploring, uncovering things I don’t know.
(Bill Culbert in conversation with the journalist Anne Guimon, 1994)
Bill Culbert (born 1935) came to England from New Zealand in 1957, and studied at the Royal College of Art in London between 1957 and 1960. By the early 70s he was exhibiting in the UK’s most prestigious galleries and museums. He lives and works between London and Provence.
Culbert began his experimentations with electric lights in 1968 and started to use shadows, camera obscura, bulbs and fluorescents as his main media, constructing and retaining light in sculpture. In London his work soon generated intense interest: his many solo shows included the Serpentine Gallery (1976), and the ICA (1983 and 1986). His work also received much attention in France where he participated in major group exhibitions, such as Electra at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1983 and Britannica, 30 years of Sculpture (Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux at Le Havre in 1988, which also gave him his first retrospective in 1990. Other exhibitions include The Sixties Art Scene in London at the Barbican Centre in 1993, curated by David Mellor, and Un siècle de Sculpture Anglaise, at Jeu de Paume in 1996. In New Zealand from 1997 to 1998 his solo retrospective at the City Gallery (Wellington) toured to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (New Plymouth), and Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Culbert has had more than 100 solo exhibitions to date.
Often associated in the 70s with Kinetic and Concrete Art, Culbert’s work also has a strong affinity with Dada, Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. He works with found objects, tables, chairs, crates, tools, jugs, suitcases, lampshades, wine glasses (filled with wine, red as it happens), and electric light (which is a ready-made in itself). As a sculptor using light and shadow in a way, which goes beyond the boundaries of the traditional art object, he also shows a clear affinity with the pioneering work of Moholy-Nagy. Culbert’s involvement with conceptual art is also evident. Gladys Fabre, when writing on Culbert‘s first French retrospective at Le Havre in 1990, comments of what it was happening at the time of When Attitudes become Form: ‘British experimentation is characterized by an obvious determination to push back the frontiers of art and to question its status; by an economic use of materials; and also by a search for rigour, and the habit of exhibiting a floating ambivalence or a doubt, rather than theatrically staging something obvious. Bill Culbert fits perfectly into this general trend’.
Bill Culbert is also a photographer. His photography gives a new clue to the fundamentals in his work; as light reflects through windows or glass and moves through translucent objects, the artist snaps at small mirages but is only focused on the reality that hides behind the apparent misrepresentations of the mind. Rather than a work on illusion, it is a work on surprises from the physical world. A consistent philosophical approach of catching the unexpected from within the realm of reality seems to be the undercurrent of all Culbert’s work.
His extraordinarily diverse career has also led him to produce large public commissions over the past two decades. In 2010 the major monograph Bill Culbert. Making Light Work was published by Auckland University Press and written by the poet, novelist and critic Ian Wedde. Some of his exhibitions include the solo exhibitions Back Light and Light Marks (Laurent Delaye Gallery, London, 2011 and 2012), and the Light Show group exhibition (Hayward Gallery, London, 2013). Bill Culbert is representing New Zealand at the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale in May 2013.