Mixing aspects of the personal and symbolic in his characteristic idiosyncratic manner, Nigel Brown has, throughout his long and distinguished career engaged in social commentary of great importance. Fundamentally, he has been asking enduring questions about our behaviour and beliefs, with nurture as an enduring theme and thereby the place of humankind within the natural world. His is a holistic vision, tempered by the shams of our contradictory behaviour and the reality of what we are and are not doing. Who are we? What is our “identity” actually comprised of? Fact or fiction? Truth or deceit?
The figurative/symbolic duality and layering of stylistic and thematic approaches, so emblematic in his work, underpin his visual motifs and his over-arching dialogues. The pathos of loss, where “identity” is presented both as fixed and fluxing, and at constant risk, is replete with references to significant people (including Richard Nunns, Richard Henry, Ed Hilary), the history of real and imagined places, to artists (Colin McCahon, Barry Brickell) and writers (Bruce Mason, Glen Colquhoun), and so on. He mixes time – the past and present – together, adding increments of doubt as (internal) dissolves while he also celebrates. Nature is us and we are it, he is saying.
Identity as an exhibition has three constituent parts, with the ruru (owl), kererū (woodpigeon) and black singleted man differentiating these, with numerous narrative and pictorial connections running between them. As always, he explores the intersections, the symbiosis, between birds and mankind.
Brown presents the ruru as a plural symbol, a portal, linking the material and spiritual world. Combining the specific and symbolic, adding narrative vignettes drawn from his earlier works, he delivers symbolic fragments. His all-seeing owl is part-tohunga, part-guide, connected to the darkness and the stars and is – ultimately – a warning: from across time to now and our (poor) stewardship of the future.
The kererū cut-outs are more celebratory in mood and attitude. In the three largest of these, embryonic fern fronds establish the structural patterning of the wings, with the central body of each becoming iconic templates and acknowledging Richard Nunn’s important reprising of taonga puoro and the central role the kiwi performs in our national psychology. In the smaller kererū works the role of pattern is more enhanced, the fern fronds like outstretched arms building tender and caring sensations with the central image on the body less complex. Here, Brown’s narrative concerns explore climate change, our forests, and the family unit.
Nigel Brown’s black singleted figure has become an iconic, enduring symbol of the New Zealand working man. He celebrates masculinity as much as he now reshapes it with the female shadow and alternative sexualities always implied and participating. With the inclined head and folded arms, he builds intense metaphors of regret into the body language. No longer rapacious and brutal, these cut-out figures with pictorial vignettes, words and names presented as if graffiti and tattoos are further animated by considerable visual rhythms built by the recessed black lines surrounding the figures and flowing back and forth like a drawing. This is pathos wrapped in a human body with the portent of black adding elements of spiritual depth that – ultimately – suggest all might not be lost, if we care enough to act, to embrace the extent and scale of the problems we face and to collectively change.