The works now hung and curated I first saw backstage at Milford Galleries Dunedin. Being mainly familiar with the muscly black-singletted bloke, the iconic if not archetypal Kiwi male, set within thick enclosing boundaries, my first impression was of the difference in scale. Not only are these paintings big, but the bounded edges were so dominant that they almost became the pictures, while tucked away in the middle, as if through a key-hole or in a little alcove, was a figurative figure. At first glance these multi-coloured mosaics caught my eye. As I moved closer some large words, rough painted, imposed themselves, as did the figure within the alcove or keyhole. Then the mosaic fragments themselves morphed into words strung like roughly hand-made beads, strings of them, encasing the figure in the middle. Occasionally I recognised a name, such as John A. Lee, Aunt Daisy, Nelson Mandela or Hone Heke. As I wandered around the big paintings, propped at various angles against any spare table or wall capable of coping with the load, I sometimes paused to peer at the strings of letters and words as if they would make sense if only I looked a little harder. As a rule they did not, reminding me of language before grammar, deep time; but also tempting me to provide a grammar that would give the seemingly random words some meaning. My mind trailed away – random, survey, controlled experiment, statistics, probability. And then suddenly, somewhere amid the verbiage, a sentence was there, rewarding the patient explorer. At other times, as in ‘A Full List for You to Remember’, even the tyranny of the alphabet appeared to be under challenge.
By moving closer and then backing away I gained a sense of a visual field that hung beneath two poles – micro and macro, the present and deep time, imagination and reason, the subjectively idiosyncratic and well-established painterly conventions. As I moved around the paintings, I sensed a range of polarities that were being articulated and explored: New Zealand history, Western History; Māori or Polynesian icons, British or European figures; high culture, low culture; cool rationality, organic intuition; high art, vernacular art; civilization, nature; luxury, bare necessities; effete, down-to-earth; white, black or brown. Opposites defining each other. Opposites giving life to each other. In ‘A Discussion Paper on Western Art’ Captain James Cook’s right eye gazed past me, as a Polynesian and I looked intently at him. Was it Toi, Kupe or even Tupaia? I’d read a lot of Cook’s substantial accounts of his three voyages when I first prepared lectures on New Zealand history in 1969-70, and have returned to them often since, ever more aware that they provide a remarkable road map not only to Western preoccupations at that extraordinary moment but to the human mind itself. The two figures, Cook gazing into some space behind the viewer, the other at Cook, remind one of that remarkable entanglement, really the start of our history, and of the fact that those involved, and their descendants, would be transformed by the on-going engagement.
The exhibition has an overall title of Provocations and that hints at Brown’s role, the Provoker. It is as if he too sees himself as a navigator, like Cook or Kupe, prompting the viewer to reflect on the larger landscapes and cultural patterns that have produced us and our society. Many of his own life’s themes are present: the introspective anguish of his earliest work; the struggle against a repressive Calvinism and the conservative forces in society; the creative force of spiritual prophecy, here as elsewhere captured in James Baxter’s memorable figure, not to mention the rejection of materialism; the celebration of art and artists as modern society’s moral and spiritual guides; perhaps even the redemptive power of art. The centrality of the word – in the beginning was the word – is assumed, as is the spiritual significance of our landscapes. Such themes are constants in his work and both, at least in this country, boast distinguished pedigrees or genealogies. But cats and dogs have departed, despite the tortured-come cubist ‘Woman’s Dog’, as have suburban townscapes. The men ready to destroy the bush and transform the land are still here, however.
Whatever he has worked on, however, Nigel Brown has always returned to everyman if not every-woman. His on-going preoccupation with everyman and his values has also always been related his concern with social justice, a concern which, historically, has in European and neo-European societies been allied with a strong identification with the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden. The so-called ‘new’ social history of the 1960s, which shaped me, had grown out of precisely the same concerns and developed into a broader desire to recapture the lives of ordinary people, ‘plain folk’ (as the Americans say). Nigel Brown has for long been the artist who has specialized in exploring the lives and dreams of the ordinary bloke within their broader historical context. He has long been a world authority on Pākehā and what makes them tick. Indeed he understands his people as the products of both land and history, except that the land too is now in part the product of history.
He is more than that. These Provocations reminded me of why I felt that I had met him before meeting him, as it were, prompting my own autobiographical journey into my own past.
In the 1970s, when I had recently returned after six years in North America, John Clark gave us effete townies Fred Dagg in his black singlet and Nigel Brown gave us his own black singletted Kiwi bloke. The sort of masculinity they embodied grew out of a particular past. It was not only that men sold their strength if not their skill on a labour market, workers no less, a subject I had made a specialty of my own, but that that sort of hard physical work or yakker created the country we have inherited. For that reason those men were the real men, the tough, laconic, resourceful blokes who had made the country and dominated its rugby teams. Although it is a fiction that New Zealand artists invariably painted landscapes rather than portraits, only a handful have painted working men or women. (1)
If art now provides our spiritual guidance, it is doubtless significant that the major poets in this exhibition are those English Romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth. They provided a foil to that omnipresent masculinity before it had been created in the bush and the backblocks, as if they could foresee what might happen here. Both also wrote powerfully about voyages of discovery, the strangeness of new worlds, captured in those McCahon-esque waterfalls. Both also expressed a sense of life’s spiritual purpose without resort to theology, a sort of Humanism if you like. Lyrical Ballads, first published by Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1798 (and rapidly running through one edition after another), first celebrated the lives of ordinary folk, foreshadowing a new humanism.
If Provocations made me conscious of his preoccupation with certain themes, something about the painterliness of his paintings also resonated. Something about the rough-drawn men, not to mention the crude lettering of his words, reminded me of folk art, a sort of modern primitivism. Gregory O’Brien, friend of Brown’s and well-known critic, once noted the use of ‘a rugged rural vernacular’. (2) Although O’Brien was discussing Nigel’s father’s first collection of poetry, Hangdog, the phrase also conjures up something of the son’s painterly technique. When in an old stone crib near Blacks, modern Ophir, I came across one of Brown’s goldminers, I was struck by his expressive use of earthy colours and his use of a constrained palate. Where almost all 20th century New Zealand works that I had seen had been influenced by one of the great movements that transformed the art of Western Europe, Brown seemed alone in also referencing the Expressionism of Central Europe. The earthy colours and restricted palate also brought into sharp relief a certain folksy quality, that ‘rugged rural vernacular’. In style, in short, he has always been, and remains, idiosyncratically himself, different, engaged with the lives of ordinary people – orchardists, farmers, shearers, navvies –people whose skills and capacities cannot always be expressed in language.
There is another side to him which I had chanced on years ago, and which I missed here. In the early 1980s I often stayed with friends in Newmarket, on the border with Parnell. I have an uninformed passion for architecture as well as art, frequently visiting churches and cathedrals, and so, unusually given I’m from Dunedin, when I walked to and from the University of Auckland I usually chose to walk through one of Auckland’s oldest ecclesiastical precincts. Although initially I preferred the old cathedral, over time I became aware of Brown’s brilliantly-coloured stained-glass windows in Trinity Cathedral with their explicit engagement with the Māori as well as the Pākehā dimension of our past. The medium of stained glass no less than the messages prompted by a Māori-Pākehā past, set in a broader Pacific context, sat in my memory, juxtaposed with oils and acrylics, earthy colours and ordinary Pākehā.
Brown has been described as a magpie. He not only draws on a wide range of disciplines and genres, often having chanced upon a serendipitous source, but hones in on the boundaries we create to manage our world. Literature, film, the works of other artists, pop art, ‘traditional’ Māori art – all are grist to his mill. Similarly he cross references, re-investigates, and revisits. He works variously in glass, oils and acrylics, various forms of printing. He is nothing if not eclectic. He is ever conscious of the divides and the differences, the detail that disrupts or subverts the category designed to elucidate. Or that’s the well-established theory. He is also ever conscious of the complicated relationship between words and the things they purport to describe. In his best work sign, signified, and signifier are interrogated. He is also conscious of how change is both abrupt and gradual, in your face and unobtrusive. Politically and socially engaged, he is forever questioning what is going on, what words actually mean, how phrases and snatches of conversation work. He asks what do we value now and that of course brings us back to the historian’s question of how we interpret what is actually happening? And should we care?
In an essay which deserves to be better known, Miles Fairburn, for many years the historical profession’s enfant terrible, argued against the various variants of the view that New Zealand is exceptional. Instead, he claimed, New Zealand culture has always been a pastiche of four elements: the Australian, the American, the British and the indigenous (i.e that which is peculiar to these islands). If you focused on art or architecture, in part thanks to the Jewish refugees from Central Europe, perhaps you would have to include Europe, According to Fairburn – nephew of the poet and son of Hamilton’s preeminent critic – Ronald Hugh Morrieson, the boy from Hawera whose black comedies sold strongly in his own day, best captured this pastiche in words. (3) Had he been as familiar with our art as he is with our literature, Fairburn might well have acknowledged that Brown is our preeminent artist of the Kiwi pastiche. These Provocations certainly capture, analyse, depict and confront the complex interplay of influences which shape and define us, both the recollection of the past and memory’s role in shaping the present.
Yet this series is about today. As someone who recalls the radicalism of the 1970s and the great causes of the 1980s, Brown, like many of his generation, has been struck if not oppressed by the apathy of the younger generations. He picks up the jargon, clichés, and mannerisms of our times and tries to locate in them a wider meaning if not a humanist hope. He has acknowledged his Provocations as ‘reactionary to the technocratic world’, a world more comfortable considering means than ends. ‘When I do a back up of my computer and enter the time machine’, he confessed, ‘I feel I am entering a space dislocation both marvellous and a little terrifying but that is possibly comparable to leaving behind [a] western perspective when entering the spaces in Aboriginal or Māori art.’ The voyage of discovery becomes, whether we wish or not, a journey towards achieving a critical perspective on ourselves and our times. And so it is that Brown, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (the subject of his first painting), has travelled through uncharted seas into his own ‘cold Country towards the South Pole’, and traversed ‘the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean’ as he returned back, transformed by the journey, ‘to his own Country’.
- Erik Olssen
1. My old friend the late George Griffiths, publisher and patron of the arts (if better known to some as ‘Prester John’ or ‘Civis’ for the Otago Daily Times), had often remarked on this relative absence, which alerted me. However, both Garth Tapper and to a lesser extent Trevor Moffitt have done so. Earlier still so did Russell Clark and Peter McIntyre. I am indebted to Steve Higginson for this information.
2. Contemporary New Zealand Artist Series: Nigel Brown, Auckland, Random Century, 1991.
3. ‘Is There a Good Case for New Zealand Exceptionalism?’, in Disputed Histories: Imagining New Zealand’s Pasts, eds. Tony Ballantyne and Brian Moloughney, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2006, Ch. 6 (and pp. 148-9 for Morrieson).