Away and Towards (taking its title from a 1978 work) is a substantial exhibition covering thirty-three years and comprising works primarily drawn from the artist’s private collection. As such it inevitably takes something of an overview or survey stance and clearly demonstrates – for all of Nigel Brown’s restless inventiveness – that his primary humanistic, environmental and social concerns (and narrative style) continuously traverse the questions of ‘who are we and what are we, where are we now and where do we come from?’ and that these concerns and questions have been remarkably consistent as well as insistent across the three decades represented.
This exhibition charts Brown’s eclectic, back-and-forth process and the development of an increasingly distinctive visual language. His modus operandi is to search for the universal in the local and to speak of the dislocation between the individual and society in that process. He has a highly refined and defined ear for the vernacular in our thought and behaviour, the argot of our words and deeds. He has referred to himself as a “symbolic expressionist” (1) and there can be little doubt such a phrase is accurate. He is also an “emphatically figurative painter” (2) of ideas and symbols and in this way he comes to blend “the surreal with the familiar” (3) as he builds allegories of belief, prophesy and warning. “Brown sees us facing the judgements of nature, society and ecology.” (4)
There have been distinct phases and series in Brown’s career – firstly the domestic (interior) subject; then the backyard life, both real and imagined; the banded text followed and the role performed by words in his work became critically important to his pictorial concerns and narrative development. He began to use words in a noticeably literary manner to advance political, social and environmental issues and dialogues.
Brown’s development as an artist and with each of his subjects has been essentially sequential in nature. One thing has led on to another. In this manner his ever-increasing lexicon of symbolic images has arisen. Similarly his use of words as text has progressively developed from being phrases of declaration and/or incantation (The Dog of Instinct, 1978; A Poet as Christ, 1980/81; Women Are Women, 1984) to the noticeably “new level of complexity in which conflicting ideas and fragmentary thoughts” (5) are presented in repeated rectangular bands (Dictionary of Unusual Men, 2011; I Am a Pakeha New Zealander, 2011).
Less obvious perhaps to some but equally significant is the diverse vocabulary of religious symbols and this includes the inclined penitent’s head (Remains of the Day, 1997; Lament for Earth, 2011), the rosette sun (Blue Temple, 1998), the table and lamp (Three Lamps, 2007/08), the ark, and the arched window which appears again and again in numerous guises and roles.
The marae and the meeting house are primary symbols of the uniqueness of NZ culture (Our Heritage, 1987) and its nascent spirituality. Their deified importance is presented as sacred land and centrality of place. But in keeping with Brown’s restless questioning, it cannot be suggested he is acting as a born-again Maori apologist for he has openly and persistently debated and asserted human equality (Pakeha Belongs, 1997; I am a Pakeha New Zealander, 2011).
Equally fundamental to his humanistic concerns is the role of the family and gender equality. Superb early examples of this are Life Tree (B), 1983-87 and Te Reo, 1984. The metaphors of the protective mother in the family and life being a stage reach an apogee in Madonna Mountain, 2007/08 where key pictorial devices are drawn from the world of the stage, behind which a mountainous landscape is presented as a waterfall-filled backdrop over which two koru-shaped waves loom, beneath an arched window.
Nigel Brown’s move from Auckland to Southland resulted in numerous developments in his work. Driving South, 1999 is a large scale visual poem of anticipation, where isolation, observation and natural flora and fauna are the cultural imperatives. All is Predatory, 2009-11 places Cook and a black singlet Ned Kelly as protectors of a bird of prey. Irony abounds with the direct gaze of the harrier hawk making the viewer its prey.
In its courageous composition Inner Truth, 2006-09 takes a metaphysical stance, suggesting the life-long search for meaning and purpose is a contradictory modern-day compromise that requires entering the concrete jungle of the built city and journeying on the descending parapets and corkscrewing paths. Brown never offers easy answers - Yeah Human, 2004 is a bleak treatise where trees have been substantially modified and perhaps are seen to exist for some as sculptural objects only.
Glass Wall, 2003/04 is a substantial artistic achievement where Brown unites disparate items drawn from NZ’s history and contemporary cultural fabric. He includes gumboots, variously refers to different Maori carving styles, depicts monumental sculpted torsos and uses tables and buildings to lead the eye in and create spatial depth. He utilises modernist design elements, contrasts animals, birds, human and sculptural figures with objects of devotion. In this enthralling tableaux Brown quotes art history and references key motifs from numerous preceding series.
No New Zealand artist has so directly, repeatedly or so diversely examined the role of Cook in our history and our present. In three of the major works of this exhibition, Brown rewrites aspects of that history and imagines Cook’s death at the point of first contact where he came ashore (Death of Cook – A Vision at Tolaga Bay, 1992). In the empathetic, resonant Life’s Not Fair, 2007/08 Cook is shown alone in front of a stage-set of Fiordland. There he is revealed as a flawed individual, dislocated, discombobulated and acted upon rather than in command. Once if your Curiosity Continued Insatiable 2007/08 implies Cook’s presence with the dog prow of the Endeavour anthropomorphised, overlooking Preservation Inlet and the rata branch that connected the ship to Observation Point.
Brown is an allegorical artist who uses the precepts of drama – that is he tells stories placing the narrative subject into spiritual context (Zhuo, 1997), specific geography (No Golden Age, 2001) and clearly delineated time (Let Time Be Still Ptg 1, 2006). He chronicles the endless clashes and struggles between materialism and humanity in society. Brown is a ceaseless questioner and experimenter also but it must be emphasised that at heart too he is unmistakeably a painter who delivers distinctive visual rhythms and compelling “harmonies of form and colour.” (6)
1. Richard Wolfe, Art NZ 143, p.57
2. Denys Trussel, Three Paintings in the Architecture of Delusion essay in Allegories exhibition catalogue, Tinakori Gallery
5. Richard Wolfe, Art NZ 143, p.79
6. Gregory O’Brien, Nigel Brown, Random Century p.31