For a long time artist Nigel Brown has lived at Pahia on the Southland coast, a short drive west of Invercargill. His earlier life was spent in Auckland where he studied at Elam then went on to establish his unmistakable painting style. He’s become the everyman of New Zealand art over the past 40 years, representing a democracy of things common to everyday life and developing a visual language that’s instantly recognisable, even though he approaches his subject matter from constantly differing angles.
He describes his latest exhibition, Away and Towards, at Milford Galleries Dunedin, as a semi-survey with works dating from 1978 to 2011. It’s a substantial show whose title speaks of the painter’s many journeys – from Antarctica to Russia, and taking in most of New Zealand as well. In these works his inner voyages and imaginings generate complex signs and symbols, which he continually returns to and re-configures in his art. The works range in size from the small James K. Baxter icon, Reading with Volcano (1989) to the huge Glass Wall (2003-4). No matter what their size, they reveal a rich field of meaning: the big works don’t suffer diffusion, and the smaller ones are clear and uncluttered.
Some of the paintings from Brown’s own collection are being exhibited for the first time, and the exhibition as a whole speaks of his consistent style and wide range of subject matter. Though Brown paints firstly to make content and statement – his work is crammed with social and historical questions – it doesn’t come across as visual sociology or philosophy. The painterly is consistently to the fore and his idiom is clunky, vernacular and yet virtuosic. Brown is no primitive – the works are saturated in history and knowledge of his craft. In Zhuo (1997), for instance, the text beside the waterfall states the reason for an apparent clumsiness: “Zhuo. Awkwardness. A quality admired in a Confucian personality and also in scholar–amateur painting. Not a real ineptitude, but a child-like clumsiness. A natural, innate quality that is free of pretension and ostentation.”
This characteristic style addresses our perceptions of historical and present New Zealand, and harmonises perfectly with the words, figures, objects and landscapes in the paintings. Brown uses both “scientific” and “pre-scientific” perspective, often combining them in the same work. Glass Wall combines the perspective common to Western painting since the Renaissance with non-naturalistic shifts in scale: diminutive figures sit at a dinner table, over-shadowed by a huge kiwi and a monumental pair of gumboots. The table and other structures narrow down as they reach towards the painting’s vanishing point. Here style has become a demonstration in art history.
Text plays a significant role in Brown’s paintings, whether as inscriptions of titles or statements reflecting on content. Though he’s continuing McCahon’s legacy, Brown’s use of language is much more secular. He greatly extends McCahon’s ‘I AM’, construing it as many voices – not just the overpowering voice of the artist or god. Its appearance in Three Lamps(2007–8) is enigmatic: it might be visionary, domestic, or both. Could it be “I AM the lamp of divinity”, or does it bring McCahon into the context of present-day New Zealand where his words and lamps share table space with a Barry Brickell sculpture and jug?
The text in Let Time Be Still (2006) comes from a poem by James K. Baxter and forms the building blocks of the composition, just as geometric forms do in abstract expressionism. Sculptural and monumental, the words ‘become structure’ dominating land and sky and transcending their semantic origins. Three paintings in the show, selected from Brown’s own collection by Milford director Steven Higginson depart from his usual patterning of image and word. In Notes From A Stereo (1987), a grid overlies a surface of words and numbers and is a take on ephemeral technologies, doomed to disappear, while the 2011 works Dictionary of Unusual Men and I Am a Pakeha New Zealander, which Brown calls “provocation paintings”, are part of a series yet to be shown. The provocations arose from tensions and clashes in his Southland environment; a sense of social and political aggravation, with fragments of ideas, opposites, stresses in living, pushed to the fore as words. He says these works are a new departure: “Forcing the eye away from the centre. Finally you have the quality of painting in harmony and conflict with meaning.”
Frequently, Brown writes his own texts, often fully-fledged poems such as Madonna Mountain (2007–8). Based on an un-named peak in Dusky Sound, the highly symmetrical image of a mountain is surrounded by text with a Madonna and Child in the foreground. The work is a concise, powerful metaphor, which conflates a mountain (construed as earth-feminine) with a Christian archetype that Brown has ‘naturalised’. Mountain and mother become Papatuanuku, redemptive not just as religious symbolism from the northern hemisphere, but as ecological symbolism embodied in New Zealand’s far south.
Madonna mountain drawing
clouds to hide. You are
the question above our lives and us,
calm as a frozen wave breaking.
Brown is a literary painter whose titles and inscriptions are incorporated deeply into his pictorial forms. The various objects in the visual field become part of a very ancient but modern (and postmodern) debate about language – about the connection between names and the things they name. The debate is broadened by the fact that Brown’s words are painterly, not just verbal. Their physical appearance really counts. To this he adds the primary appearance of the painted image. He ‘names’ by painting images as well as words. His paintings are a republic of figurative and verbal objects, which are all treated as significant no matter how humble they are. Gumboot or adjective, tree fern or noun, proper name or wharenui, capital, dog or bird – each is painted as its own idea. In this way his style gives presence, a chunky ‘thing-ness’, to each object, emphasising its actuality. Brown sees this as his particular task in New Zealand painting over the past 40 years: “My whole career has been the difficult attempt to integrate modernist, pictorial and word aspects in a way that is relevant to life now.”
Far from corrupting the purity of ideas, this approach is a means of expressing them. These are not ideas of final things, of eternal perfections – they’re about what Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, has called “residence on earth”. For Brown this residence involves a questioning engagement, a use of art in the political arena. There are plenty of issues in this exhibition—among them the ecological battles of the 1970s, disarmament and peace, the emergence of indigenous rights, feminism, the climactic Springbok Tour and the establishment of New Zealand’s nuclear-free status. His awareness of issues has seeped quietly through his whole painterly language: “Two key aspects of human interaction sensed every day are confrontation or engagement and removal or distance. As a child I was influenced by Westerns where gunfighters faced one another, but [now] I’m into less sensational everyday dynamics: the poetry of separation, tension, of difference, human awareness.”
His ‘less sensational everyday dynamics’ shaped Te Reo (1984), an anti-nuclear painting, featuring an archetypal family, a wharenui, Pakeha housing, a tree-fern and a kite decorated with a rainbow-encircled heart. This is not gun fighting, but consciousness-building. The only explicit visual clues are two stylised nuclear explosions, which have been crossed out. Words speak of language and ocean, and the entire image is on a powerful red ground—aesthetic values haven’t been sacrificed for political ones.
The exhibition’s really big paintings—seven of them—have questionings at their heart. Two of them are dream projections from history: The Death of Cook. Vision at Tolaga Bay (1992) and Life’s Not Fair (2007–8). In the first Cook is an archetype, killed off by the painter at Tolaga Bay, New Zealand, with all the psychological reconstruction of our history, which that involves. In Life’s Not Fair we see Cook in Dusky Sound—one of the bases of the voyages. In the painting he’s turned into a monumental visage, his head and shoulders dominating the darkly sublime land and seascape of the Sound, which he first visited in 1770. A grotesque bough, half-natural, half-constructed, extends into the painting on one side and a beast’s head looms on the other. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and speaks of the danger and necessity of visionary voyages.
Is Cook the ancient mariner who has to learn by catharsis that exploration is a conflicted project, not just a rational projection of a particular kind of mind? In this portrait we see a troubled, pained giant. He is in fact the Kupe of the Pakeha, who came here from ancestral islands and returns repeatedly to them until he meets his death and apotheosis in Hawaii. Sitting at his left ear we see the psyche of Polynesia tonguing words and worlds into his mind – words and worlds that shake old certainties. A tragi-philosophical explorer, in part the representative of the European Enlightenment, he’s also be-devilled by being the forerunner of European imperialism.
A smaller version of this painting, without Cook, was done at the same time. Its title, Once if your Curiosity Continued Insatiable (2007–8), hints at the limitless development and exploitation that often comes in the wake of explorers.
The larger painting completes the idea. It’s one hell of a depiction of a man doomed to be an historical colossus, eroded by his frailties. His painted words speak volumes about reaching an incalculable place in which those of us who are his descendants in history are still on a voyage of discovery: an inner voyage with no known ending.
In spite of the best laid plans
discovering life’s not fair
all Endeavour, all Resolution
lead to a strange place
you can’t turn your back on.
Away and Towards, paintings by Nigel Brown is at Milford Galleries Dunedin, from 10 May to 4 June 2014. Visit milfordgalleries.co.nz for more details.
Published in Art News Winter 2014