For background on the artist and works, see below.
Portrait of Whirimako Black
Milford in Rain
Nature Under Siege
We Cannibalise the Planet
Cook Paua Eyes
Music Bird Aotearoa
Solve Every Problem
Stream of Consciousness
Kei te Takutai Moana
Earth on Fire Ponga
Earth End Ponga
A Love for Nature
The Blue Guitarist
About the Artist
Born 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 living sustainably in the landscape, especially the intuitive way birds live, as opposed to the scientific classification of the world exemplified through Cook. In his Organic Thinking series, he uses the kererū in an emblematic way much as artists in ancient cultures did, viewing the world through the eyes of the creature; he tells stories of a ‘Climate of Change’ – socially and environmentally. ‘I have wanted to get closer to kererū, not in the sense of zoom lenses and fine details, but in a more ancient, psychic and emblematic sense’.
Sustainability and climate change issues come to the fore in Nigel Brown’s latest body of work, with the daunting Coronavirus image often replacing the sun, less about what is happening to humankind than about a metaphor for what is afflicting the planet. He references his own Lemon Tree series of the 1970s, but the tree is struggling, bearing a single hopeful fruit, while the volcano smokes a warning of climate volatility. The ungainly but beautiful kererū lumber into the skies carrying hope, urging an intuitive approach.
Sustainability and the need for the workers of the land (often represented by his iconic ‘black singlet’ man) to become nurturer are central to recent paintings, often with a gilt sky emphasising ‘icon’ status of certain motifs and figures, including the kererū, 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.
Brown is also keen to escape the constraints of the ‘rectangle’ format: his painted plywood cutouts counter ‘the cool smooth slickness of our techno society with a rough homemade authenticity’.
‘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.’
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, previously in a series 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. Latterly Brown has been involved in a project of artistic encounters with Ship Cove/Meretoto in Tōtaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound, Cook’s preferred anchorage in Aotearoa. This project is timed to coincide with the 250-year commemorations of first contact between European and Māori.
Brown 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 gold 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 kererū, 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 Meretoto and Fiordland series build 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.
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