Nigel Brown is a painter of ideas and symbols. Yet his imagery is immediate and based on strong, familiar physical presences. These presences are symbols of the ideas, but are also figurative elements in his rough-hewn painterly works. Despite the abstract nature of ideas he has seldom used abstraction in his painting. Even in those works with a tendency to the geometrical any abstraction is approached warily. It’s as if he needs his thoughts to be embodied. In the painting which lends its title to his most recent exhibition, Will to Meaning, he tells us ‘started off as just shapes, but in the end I was compelled to include recognizsable elements, as a purely abstract conclusion did not satisfy me.’1
Brown’s personal ‘will to meaning’ involves his making of paintings, his generation of forms. Such forms are intelligible. They may be, and often are, nonsemantic, as in music, but they suggest a significance that is their meaning. Viewers, if they follow the grammar, the syntax, the poetics of the painting glean that richness of meaning from its imagery.
The artist is a kind of historian, one who knows history is both time past and prophecy. His paintings combine elements of our past in constantly changing assemblages. These deploy not chronological, but dramatic time—time as it is in theatre or poetry. Aristotle noted that to write drama well was to create an ‘action’—a plot that had a sense of necessity to it. Brown’s paintings are actions in this sense. They are orderings of events and figurative elements so as to bring out their most significant connections or meanings. This is a dramatic principle, and the paintings may be seen as dramatic ‘actions’. Such ‘actions’ interpret the past and construct the predicaments that face us now. They are not acts in the everyday sense of the word, but are the structure of meaning itself.
The past is not another country. It is active now, a grotesque arcadian myth, symbolised in these paintings by the figures of the pioneer male and female, often black-singleted or long-dressed, at times naked as in Eden. They cut down the forests of original sin to build the materialist Utopia. Their project is ongoing, carrying us willy-nilly towards ecological collapse. In this group of paintings the scale of their works, their constructions, their alter-egos has increased greatly, but they have diminished. This can be seen most clearly in Do It, where the arcadian family are scarcely visible against a giant temple reared, we may surmise, to a false god. The axeman, as the pioneering Titan portrayed in Brown’s earlier work, is now reduced almost to a silhouette bearing witness to the physical and existential colossi that he created, but that now threaten to overwhelm him.
A question of identity underlies Will to Meaning. Immense, sculpted letterings of McCahon’s I AM are everywhere. In the I/WE Landscape and Back Into All of This the letterings are almost the entire content of the image. What may once have been a triumphant affirmation of being has grown here into an intimidating symbolic array. The historical ego has hardened into egomania. Identity, nearly erased in the horrors of the past century, has returned as a giant, fed on narcissism and a will to dominate in a shorn and de-natured landscape. Its original humanist nobility, its creation of the individual, is not entirely gone though. Brown plants his I AM around as an enigma, like the silent statues of Rapa Nui. We are uncertain finally whether we are seeing them in their positive or negative aspect.
The monumentalism of I AM is present in other structures too. Brown has recently been in Russia and has incorporated Constructivist ideas from the radical beginnings of the Soviet Union into his Will To Meaning. Wooden Monument is such a construction, painted rather than built in three dimensions. So too are Tower for Oceans and Native Timber. Their concerns however are outside those of Soviet Modernism. Wooden Monument is a metaphor about New Zealand’s infrastructure, its epic timber engineering that made living forest into the dead wood of beams, struts and bracing. Pahia Hill, barely visible behind the monument, has the merest fringe of forest on its summit ridge. All else has been cleared. About the base of the monument are tiny dwellings, uncertain signs of a rural society, diminutive beneath the engineering prodigy that towers into the sky above them.
Native Timber is a wooden memorial in the notional graveyard for rimu, hard beech, totara, kauri, matai, priri and kahikatea—a memorial made, ironically from the bones of the dead. The I AM, unobtrusive at the tower’s base could be the axeman or the artist; could be the builder of urban worlds or the ecologist; could be all these subsumed in the one ego. Such questions place this work in the history of displacement that is affecting indigenous forests and peoples through the world.
Tower for Oceans is literally based on the I AM whose solid letterings provide the foundations of the structure. Again, it is a painted image of what could be a Constructivist sculpture, but built into it is the recurring, highly stylised form of a wave. These waves are motifs throughout Will to Meaning. They are petrified, caught in the instant before breaking. Quite abstract, they encode messages about our fateful relationship with the sea. The tower is for oceans, yet we know its construction is part of a pattern of human activity that is now placing us in jeopardy. The homage is therefore deeply ambivalent. Brown’s man, woman and dog archetypes are about its base, but we have no clue as to their connection with it. All we can see is that it has outgrown them, reducing them, its possible makers, to virtual inexistence.
Though the tower may be a homage to the natural world it seems also to express some of the folly of the temple in Do It. Here is a case where any genuine religious impulse has been displace by fanaticism and megalomania; a vast materialist gesture more to do with earthly power than spiritual growth. As a vernacular command ‘do it’ has been telling New Zealanders for a long time to get moving—to realise their dreams. It is the imperative of a can-do artisan culture. But what remains to be done? In the context of this almost Babylonian image that is uncertain. We have already built our temples of aggrandisement, though the series is ongoing in fantasy cities like Dubai. So the painting is prophetic. It tells a history of too much mis-guided ‘doing’ of ‘it’ and identifies a future of that limitless project of development now sweeping us to the edge of an apocalypse.
That edge could well be a coastline. One of the largest paintings of Will to Meaning certainly suggests this. In Sea Rising the entire breadth of the work is taken up by ranked waves of an apocalyptic sea. They are an almost mechanical series, suggestive even of a giant computer keyboard. Highly formalised, they move inexorably towards the viewer. The painter sees them as musical forms, not necessarily nihilistic, through which we must pass in weathering the crises of climate change. Behind them are the reeling towers of a collapsing urban architecture. All that punch-drunk glory, all the grandiloquent blindness of developers thrusting their buildings skyward become in this painting the subject of a judgement:
Sea Rising is a powerful vision, intensified by its formal use of perspective, which emphasises a mechanical, almost ‘rational’ inevitability in the sea’s action.
Then Brown offsets it. He offers what he describes as a ‘gentle apocalypse’ in the Breakers Praise Triptych. This is a massive, yet contemplative painting built around the I AM and the eloquent forms of giant ceramic sculptures, all under the aegis of words by Baxter:
These ceramics are also the outcome of humans ‘doing it’, but they are less forbidding than the towers and letterings in some of the paintings. They seem created rather than assembled and have more sympathetic meaning. If their presence on a stony beach indicates a life’s work consummated it is an ending of a king’ but it is less scary than Sea Rising and allows for some allusion to the rural environment where the artist presently lives.
The ceramics are influenced by a recent working sojourn at Barry Brickell’s Driving Creek Pottery. Their hand-cast forms suggest a less destructive aspect of our creative ego, and the environment the triptych provides for them is still within the scale of our experience. If we are doomed, this work seems to suggest it’s better to die as artisans in a landscape than as climate refugees watching the order of nature turning into a mechanical tsunami devouring all before it. That landscape is still dominated by the ‘I AM’ behind the ceramics, but the letterings take second place behind the earthly poetry of the foreground forms.
The title painting, Will to Meaning, is virtually monochromatic. In this it resembles Tower for Oceans, Native Timber and Sea Rising. They all share dark backgrounds and grey/white constructivist elements. Earth-colourings are barely present. Will to Meaning is also the most abstract of the works. In its dark ground a complex construction floats, held together by geometrically drawn lines of force. Fragments float off this main structure, as if in a space without gravity. The components of the construction are approaching the neutral forms used by Mondrian or Malevich. Such shapes are not of the world. They are a system of Platonic proto-types that have yet to put on the flesh of the world. Brown’s intentions with this painting however are not the same as these pioneers of abstraction. Mondrian aimed to divest his paint of any reference to the visible and physical environment. Brown is showing us rather just how much we have created and alter-ego of mechanical abstractions. These are not Platonic ideas embodying absolutes or purity: they are just objects machined by technology.
The figurative beings of his antipodean saga have not been forgotten though. They stand about in the painting as if lost for meaning among the industrial beams and girders. These are the ‘recognizable elements’ he needs. The tree-ferns, the humans, domestic animals, domestic artefacts all seem to be adrift, on or about this space-craft, which is simply the statement of its own blank surfaces. Some of us, some of our emblems are actually inscribed on those surfaces. The painter, looking hard at history, is driven to add to his repertoire of forms. These new elements in Will to Meaning are able to suggest loss of meaning. Whereas Breakers Praise Triptych showed meanings that might enrich us in the face of morality, these more industrial forms are de-humanising and push aside most natural reference. In them the will to meaning becomes inseparable from the will to power and turns into the inversion of itself—the will to unmeaning.
An account of Nigel Brown’s painting is often about what the works say rather than the stylistic issues they raise. Though his love of the medium is evident in the works and in his outstanding powers of building a painting, his ends are more significant to him than his means. He is driven to speak to us. Painting is for him a language in which he shows us allegories of the world. It ss not his aim to tell us about the medium, or to make art that simply reflects on itself. It is his aim to reflect on ‘reality’—the limitless social and natural drama in which we live and die.
Yet Brown’s work is in no sense didactic. Its achievement is that it sends messages without any loss of painterly quality. The works have a superb sense of pictorial space. The arrangement in them of their figurative elements is too startling for the transmission of any smug moral propositions. His is a tragic-comic vision. The forms and figures in the works are deployed in a way that is independent of scientific or rational perspective, except when he uses that on his own terms. They tell us therefore, not of predictable moral absolutes, but of a milieu in which morality and the non-moral, folly and wisdom, delusion and truth are juxtaposed in troubling ways. His then is an instance of style or technique being inseparable from the field of meanings that the painted plane reveals to us.
1. Personal communication from Nigel Brown to the author. Undated letter early 2007.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 124 Spring 2007