Back on Earl Street in Queenstown’s tourist-clogged downtown core, Blackley led me to the airy, bi-level Milford Galleries, where we were the only visitors at a just-opened exhibit by one of New Zealand’s great living artists. Dick Frizzell is a onetime commercial illustrator who mashes pop art, comics and traditional painting into uncategorizable work that bridges tradition and sedition. The exhibit I saw, titled Grand Central, included deceptively stark landscapes, portraits of rural shops and views of abandoned storefronts. Considering the weight of the show, I was surprised to see almost no publicity for it during my five nights in Queenstown.
Same with a dazzling show around the corner. Blackley took me to Kapa, a quirky gallery above a souvenir shop where Frizzell’s son Otis, an emerging star himself, was having his own opening. The space had just premiered Recent History, an exhibit of prints by Weston Frizzell, the “high-performance art partnership” Frizzell runs with Auckland scenester Mike Weston. Their work consisted of a series of metaphorical middle fingers. One print mocked a classic logo that Frizzell’s father had created for a New Zealand grocery chain; another savagely satirized an Auckland civic-pride campaign. It wasn’t what I expected to see in a city whose year-round population tops out at around 9,000.
And until recently, it wasn’t what you’d find here, according to gallerist Nadene Milne, whose roster includes such stars as photographer Fiona Pardington and abstractionist Stephen Bambury. “Over the past decade, the Queenstown demographic has changed considerably, with many internationals and New Zealanders who have lived internationally now living here. So there’s an increasing audience for a more sophisticated cultural conversation,” Milne told me. It’s what enables her to maintain a “serious dealer gallery” in what she calls “a provincial setting.”
Blackley, an artist herself who last month complemented Art Adventures with a small gallery to showcase local talent, was even more emphatic. Queenstown “was empty culturally a decade ago,” she said.
The next stop on our tour took us to a tin-roofed hut a few miles outside downtown Queenstown, where Spike Wademan was adding the final touches to one of his photorealistic marine paintings. A former commercial illustrator based in London and Sydney, Wademan settled in Queenstown 13 years ago for “a lifestyle change.” His fanatically detailed oil portraits of battleships and warplanes have earned him fans such as The Hobbit director Peter Jackson, an obsessive collector of World War I memorabilia. Wademan receives visitors by appointment only; it’s worth booking Blackley’s tour just to gain access to his memento-packed rabbit hole of a studio.
A workshop belonging to Wademan’s wife was just as fascinating. Sue Wademan is New Zealand’s leading textile artist; in a converted schoolhouse near downtown Queenstown, she maintains a fabric-strewn studio and art academy. The day of our visit, she interrupted a class of rapt students to share new work with us. I watched, mesmerized, as she arranged a seemingly random handful of ribbons into a graceful, painterly landscape.
“The landscape is why Spike and I chose Queenstown,” said Sue, whose work can command as much as $20,000. “And it’s very much become the art hub of the area. We have a lot of part-time residents who appreciate the kind of work that Spike and I do. That kind of population gave us an audience and helped us grow.”
Visitors, she told me, discover her work “by accident.” Then “they fall in love and say, ‘I’d like one of those.’ ”
I wasn’t able to take home one of Sue Wademan’s beautiful pieces. But thanks to Blackley, I did leave Queenstown with a new perspective on a destination I’d pretty much written off.
And for me, that’s the best kind of travel adventure you can have.