In New Zealand’s post-Covid, Level 1 situation, the title of Nigel Brown’s new exhibition seems especially apt. The country has had to re-set itself in light of the global pandemic and discussions abound about the potential for change in everything from work habits to consumption patterns to values systems. The artist has given space to his concerns about climate change for a number of years, and the works here reflect this ongoing engagement. Brown draws upon themes and motifs from past bodies of work to extend his conceptual and visual framework, in the same way that his sculptural works extend the physical boundaries of his practice. His paintings combine the specific and the archetypal, the narrative and the abstract, the textual and the pictorial, the past and the present.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, Climate of Change (2019/20), is a “mix of chaos and hope” (1) and exemplifies Brown’s layering of stylistic and thematic approaches. At first glance, the numerous figures and motifs threaten to burst out of the picture plane. This multiplicity is held in place however, by a strong compositional framework. The painting is physically spread across three vertical panels, but its internal structure is dominated by three bold horizontal sweeps of colour that range from one side of the triptych to the other. Over this, Brown superimposes a framework that is ‘‘almost” a mirror image.
Dividing the painting in half vertically allows the artist to set up an energetic tension between symmetry and asymmetry, whilst retaining a balance of space and form. The spiky, juvenile form of the lancewood and the weathered fencepost are upright foils for the curving title that arcs across the surface of the painting. The jagged letters in the sky seem to have their roots in the geological features below them: a contrast to the excerpts of bureaucrat-speak - “precautionary approach,” “no cause for alarm,” “we are monitoring the situation” - that hover nervously above the land.
The compositional strength of Brown’s paintings is made concrete in his sculptural works. Outlines and simplified forms are pared to their essence and do double duty as framing devices for the painted elements of each carving. The curved edges of Bedroom Woman (2019/20) are reflected in the undulations of her bedspread, her own rounded arms and breasts, and the halo of cloud around her head. The subject of the painting harks back to a series Brown produced in the 1970s. (2) Another familiar, and much-loved, motif seen in the artist’s works over decades has also leapt out of the painting and onto the wall: the black dog. From being an element of colour within a work (“What’s the black element going to be?... my dog”)(3) or a simple representation of domestic life, Brown’s black “everydog” has become the medium as well as the message.
Nigel Brown has never shied away from social commentary in his practice, and over decades he has addressed issues such as nuclear disarmament, gender politics, the environment, and narratives of colonisation. The majority of Brown’s Climate of Change paintings were painted pre-2020, but the urgency and energy they exude are as applicable to the here-and-now as they are to the years in which they were created.
Nigel Brown, Artist’s statement, 2020.
Nigel Brown, quoted in Edward Hanfling “Everyman and his Dog: a conversation with Nigel Brown”. Art New Zealand: 173, Autumn 2020.