For background on the artist and works, see below.
Captain From England
Ship Cove (Meretoto)
Human Nurture I
We Are Sorry
The Earth is in Our Bodies
Perfect Climate Arcadia
Family with Cook
Debate and Compromise
Among the Humpbacks
Silver Fern for a Morepork Moon
About the ArtistBorn in 1949, Nigel Brown is widely acknowledged as one of our most important figurative artists and most significant narrative painter. He lived in the North Island for many years before returning to the southernmost coast of the South Island with partner Sue McLaughlin in 2001, then to Dunedin in 2016. He graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland in 1971, has exhibited nationally and internationally, and his works are held in important public and private collections including several in the National Collection at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand. Nigel Brown has received three Queen Elizabeth II Art Council grants, and been awarded the Order of New Zealand Merit. While viewers often respond to his content or intent, his distinctive style and handling of paint are part of the cut-through and reality of his message. Many works bring into question the way we live – issues of sustainability, and of finding intuitive rather than strictly scientific solutions – with his sharply ironic humour underpinning the delivery of his ideas. Among Brown’s best-known works are paintings challenging the notion of the ‘New Zealand man’, the ‘real Kiwi’, staunch in the black singlet, man of the land, arms folded, uncompromising. A period in Russia on an arts residency reinforced his interest in ‘icons’ of our identity – such as the New Zealand man, Captain Cook – but also of icons of our environment – the birds, the ponga as tree of life, the landforms – and legendary figures like the poet James K Baxter or Brown’s own motif, the man-woman couple. His recent works focus very strongly on the way the birds live, as opposed to the scientific classification of the world exemplified through Cook.
Sustainability and the need for the workers of the land (represented by his iconic ‘black singlet’ man) to become nurture are central to most recent paintings, often with a gilt sky emphasising ‘icon’ status of certain motifs and figures, including the kereru, the ponga or tree of life, the black singlet man. Climate volatility is upon us and needs serious dialogue and engagement to tackle the issues it represents.
Nga Manu – the birds – are central to recent paintings from Nigel Brown, which bring together many of the ideas from forty five years of work, and some of his best loved motifs to express ideas about the way we live on and with the earth. He contrasts the intuitive nature of birds with the scientific definition of the world represented by Cook and his telescope and latin names, and brings in his other iconic ‘characters’ to challenge the viewer:
‘The crux of my work for the last forty-five years or more has been a kind of organic thinking that is partly subconscious, partly stylistic and partly life driven. I call it “organic” in the sense of being earth connected and painterly. I call it “thinking” in its connection with poetry; its use of myth, symbolism, history and philosophy. Much is self-generated. It is also about being a creative individual, prone to looking back to move forward. The search has not been a purist one, as any intuitive journey implies or necessitates a certain awareness of opposites and they must be part of the story to complete things.
‘My early series such as Adam and Eve, Bicycles, and Arama Avenue established my theatre: that is to say the stage of my way of working. Since then my actors have varied from home gardeners, to explorers, to totemic figures. However a male-female duo, somewhat ageless, has been pivotal. Of that twosome a black singlet figure remains as a kind of physical labourer needing to evolve into a nurturer. He hopefully needs to be seen as an ongoing painting device or a vehicle for the subconscious rather than as a number eight wire anachronism stuck in the past. Only viewed in this way can he measure up to the challenges facing the planet…
‘Many presume western realism and the photo to be the true involvement with nature, but actually schematic simplifications are much more profound and evolve through deeper experience. In Aotearoa you only need look to Maori carving to experience the great forces of simplification combined with carved and linear complexity.
I think there is a lot to unlearn in western culture with its capitalist commodity mindset which at worst sterilises our awareness and numbs the senses. By necessity a change barely seems at all possible but is surely vital to sustainability in a climate changing world. It may take place or merely be pointed to in the way artists one by one can do.’
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More About the Artist
Nigel Brown was a founding member of VAANA – Visual Artists against Nuclear Arms – and with the strong connection his art made with New Zealanders, he used it to challenge views on social and environmental issues. He continues to use his paintings as a vehicle to challenge ideas about the environment, and about the way we connect with each other.
Nigel Brown challenges the viewer to think harder about notions of identity, history, and also about conservation and social issues. His sharp-edged, often ironic humour engages the viewer before he delivers the challenge, but he is well aware there is more than one side to every argument, and leaves room for interpretation and cogitation.
Nigel Brown continues to challenge the myths and truths of Captain James Cook’s engagement with New Zealand in a series now focused on the explorer’s journeys in Fiordland, especially those voyages with the 18th Century English painter William Hodges who generated a romanticised view of the idyllic South Seas paradise.
He does considerable research, but consciously does not intend a documentary approach, instead raising questions about how history is interpreted. In the most recent paintings, he uses gilt paint in the skies above Cook at the Cascade to challenge the golden, romanticised view nurtured by Cook and Hodges, of an unspoilt and idyllic paradise waiting to be claimed. His sense of the ironic is often directed at the ‘iconic’ – and they are all here: the kereru, the whare, the kiwi, the ponga tree, the dramatic landscape, and the Maori family, the implied patronage of Cook, and questions of impending colonialism.
‘In the same way Hodges works have been seen as artifice, mine have fabrications geared to different contemporary agendas, a New Zealand perspective and a desire to humanise as the priority.’
The Fiordland series builds on Brown’s previous work on Cook, starting in the 1990s with Cook’s Cove at Tolaga Bay. Visits to Dusky Sound in 2007 and again in 2009 gave Nigel Brown first-hand experience of the landscape and in particular the Cascade waterfall that Hodges famously recorded. In 2010 he returned there with other senior painters Gerda Leenards, John Walsh and Melvin Day, for the filming of a documentary The Waterfall by Peta Carey, about their artistic responses to the places visited by Cook and Hodges. Paintings by each of them were exhibited in The Waterfall at The Diversion in 2013, the first time Dusky paintings by all four had been shown together.
Think outside the Square series:
A base of boldly coloured squares overlaid with phrases is like a stream of consciousness, sealed with his distinctive outlined figures. They challenge on social and societal issues and the artist’s struggle between being true to the self and the environment, against commercial demands.
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