There is much in the work of Peter Blizzard to interest and challenge the contemporary viewer. The first impact of his sculpture from recent years is that it is substantial, thoughtful and comfortably modernist. On further consideration one realises that in these works there are elements that are both disturbingly familiar and curiously thought provoking. This is certainly an artist who has taken his own path and in doing so he has been regulated by a very personal timetable.
In this modest piece of writing, rather than attempt a detailed critique of a few of Peter Blizzard's sculptures, I will scan a more expansive field of reference. I will attempt to place his work in a broader international context, in an attempt to come to terms with its basic methodology and intent.
Blizzard was a child of the Melbourne suburbs, growing up in Brunswick in the 1940s and 1950s. For someone for whom nature would prove to be such a profound influence, the bush must have seemed a long way away. It was a suburban environment in which family-owned cars were scarce. Catching the tram to the city or to work would have been a good deal more straightforward than trying to head towards the wilderness. By the post-war period the hinterland had drifted somewhat in the public consciousness. Through membership of the Scouts, and later a bushwalking group, he began to escape the city and explore the Victorian countryside.
Leaving school at 15, Blizzard began working as a drafting assistant for the Post Master General's Department, undertaking night classes at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He gravitated to art subjects at RMIT and Prahran, and was able to move to the Graphic Design section of the PMG. He worked as a designer, producing posters and brochures and then exhibition stands. By the mid 1980s he was sufficiently regarded to be appointed Consultant Designer to the Australian Government and the Catholic Church for the 1985 Papal visit.
During these years Blizzard and his family had committed to the construction of a bluestone house in the bush, in Greendale. From around 1973 to 1983 they laboured on this project. This prompts a few observations – Such an undertaking came quite early in a specific cycle of Australia’s meandering fascination with the bush. From a more historical perspective, this pattern of weekly work in the city and weekend escape to a bushland artistic haven is reminiscent of a much earlier Australian cultural milieu. Certainly, for Blizzard much more than most artists, his house became, for a time, his most important artistic work.
There is no doubt that the grinding effort in stone house construction would have taught the budding sculptor the importance of safe and focussed work practice, and he certainly honed both his tool skills and fabrication design capacity. He also, it seems to me, used the building process to locate himself, in both physical and metaphysical senses, within nature.
This environment was not always benign. For example, in the early 1980s Blizzard's house was nearly destroyed by bushfire, only being saved at the 11th hour by a heroic and probably foolhardy last-ditch stand by his entire family. His studio, and a number of works, was destroyed. Such events make an artist thoughtful.
The best comparable, and documented, example of a modern sculptor who became fascinated with house construction and who turned that commitment back into art is probably the American artist H.C. Westermann (1922-1981). Westermann's work is in many ways unlike Blizzard's, but within it there is a strong strain of disgust with war and a sense that one can find one's way through honest construction. I note that Westermann was also an urban child (born in Los Angeles) who finally found himself in the woods (Brookfield Center, Connecticut). He probably spoke for many artists when he wrote, long before he lifted a hammer in Connecticut: “If we ask ourselves what has been common to all men in all parts of the world for all times, we will have the answer we are looking for. The common factor must be NATURE. Man cannot completely control the forces of nature, but from all time he has been controlled by them, and the perfect design of the universe with its balance of seasons and evolutions of life must inevitably influence each generation of man. Thus it is in nature that we find the fundamental origin of the principles of design".
Peter Blizzard built in stone and metal, H.C.Westermann built in wood, and their sculpture reflects these biases, but they both sited themselves in nature and both took over ten years to build their houses. In Westermann's works house symbols and house objects (for example log cabins) are common, but I believe that in Blizzard's oeuvre the shrine-like construction becomes a kind of 'spirit house'. There is often a roof, walls, a reference to the independent singularity of a house. Many of the works are unashamedly shrines, after all. They are idealised structures for occupation by memories, ideas, possibly our own spirits.
Examples of works that I would read in this way include Bay Totem of 2000 and Sun Stone Totem of 2003, both of which house stones in symbolic ways. I think that when we look at these works we all to some degree tend to identify with the stones or to personify them in various ways.
Between 1973 and 1994 Blizzard taught sculpture at the University of Ballarat, for the last few years occupying the role of Head of Sculpture. In some ways this artist's freestanding works evoke a sense of individual personality, and it is easy to read into them something like academic personalities. In this regard they are not unlike a number of the American sculptor David Smith's work.
Blizzard acknowledges the early influence of Australian sculptors such as Inge King and Lenton Parr, and it is easy to see connection points between his work and that of contemporaries such as Tony Pryor and Geoffrey Bartlett. It seems to me that Blizzard is essentially less decorative in his methodology than many of his generation. He does not often employ painted surfaces and he is not as impressed as many with the bald fascination of contrasting materials. When he places one material against another he does so for symbolic reasons.'
However, for me the most instructive parallels are with David Smith’s vertical works from the period between the late 1940s and the very early 1960s. Blizzard remembers developing a profound respect for Smith, based mainly on reproduced images, as he himself developed as an artist. We might well talk about Smith's pieces such as The Hero of 1951 (The Brooklyn Museum, New York) or Voltri V of 1962 (The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution) as personages in the same way that we might Blizzard's Goda or Obelisk works. Formally, the works lie in the same territorial range, and some similar elements are employed. For example, Blizzard uses the natural faces of stone or rough castings in a manner reminiscent of Smith. Cloud motifs recur in Blizzard's works, establishing the idea of a ceiling vault above, in an echo of Smith’s use of steel mill ends as clouds in works such as Voltri V. Blizzard's large work of 1985 entitled 'Optima', commissioned by Deakin University, revisits the idea of parallel circles interacting with planes that Smith explored in Circle I,II,III of 1962 (The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). I am not suggesting for a moment that Blizzard has consciously reacted to specific works of Smith in the last twenty years, but rather that Smith established a basic language of steel sculpture that Blizzard absorbed at an early stage and which has influenced much of his subsequent work.
Since 1994 Blizzard has enjoyed considerable success in Japan, exhibiting commercially and undertaking commissions. In seeking to understand the basis for this empathy, I am tempted to conjure up the spectre of Isamu Noguchi, and use this half Japanese, half Western artist as a mediating influence but I accept that this is not viable. Blizzard, as an artist adding stone to his menu of materials, would have been well aware of Noguchi's work but I do not believe that Noguchi had anything like the effect on him that that Smith did. The actual reason for the contemporary Japanese interest in Blizzard's work requires more searching analysis.
It is true, of course, that the Japanese can have a profound reverence for stones, and for stone as an element in sculpture. Blizzard's first exhibition exposure in Japan involved works that contained stone, and these works were both critically and financially successful. Also, Blizzard's work clearly addresses spiritual issues, and this has a resonance in Japan. Importantly, too, Blizzard had for very personal reasons employed some means that meshed very neatly with the Japanese sensibility.
In exhibiting at the Isogaya Gallery in Tokyo, in 1997, Blizzard had used spot lighting within a darkened gallery. He also exhibited works that carefully used contrast between rough and polished surfaces, reserving highly polished finishes only for symbolic elements that reflected, in his own vocabulary, spiritual evocation. My standard text in relation to such matters is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki's classic essay on Japanese aesthetics In Praise of Shadows (first published 1933-34). In explaining the Japanese taste for calculated lighting, Tanizaki notes lucidly, “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty…” 2 With respect to the matter of polished surfaces, Tanizaki contrasts at length what he sees to be a Western love for brilliantly polished sheens with the Japanese attention to carefully patinated surfaces… “Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.” 3 Here we see a neat conjunction of taste. Blizzard is an assiduous patinator who uses polished surfaces in a very calculated and measured manner. He uses shadow voids as compositional elements within works and shadowy installation environments to effectively present work. Through communing with nature and working with metal and stone he tries to evoke spiritual values. All this the Japanese understand.
Finally, there is a need to comment more fully on this matter of spirituality. Blizzard does not present himself as a religious person, but in various artist’s statements and interviews he has spoken of his commitment to spiritual goals in making art. My interpretation of this is that he accepts the primacy of nature above all, and that there are essential human capacities for both goodness and badness. He believes that he can make works which, in that they focus our attention and contemplation in a meditative manner, intersect with these important planes of reality. This is, in various ways, both an ambitious and a humble humanist perspective. It is essentially, I would say, both impressive and beyond questions of fashion.
In our post September 11th world there have been many debates about the contemporary possibilities of memorial sculpture and architecture. In my opinion Peter Blizzard has for many years been making memorials. His shrines locate us in nature and force us to meditate upon issues better expressed in art than words.
1. From H.C. Westermann sketchbook, c. 1949-50, quoted by Michael Rooks in “’I Made a Deal with God’: H.C. Westermann’s House and Studio”, pp.65-66 in H.C. Westermann, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
2. Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro, In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, Charles L. Tuttle, Tokyo, 1984, p. 30.
3. ibid p. 11.