Nigel Brown
Gains & Losses


Nigel Brown is a figurative painter. We recognise people, houses, landscapes in his work. But his primary purpose is to tell us something about the human condition: about spiritual conflict, isolation, lack of communication, exploitation, conservation, hope and escape.

To do this without producing work which is either banal or obscure is no easy task. The purpose of this article is to chart Nigel Brown's progress to date and to attempt` to define the qualities found in his most successful paintings. These achieve a fine balance between narrative painting - such as that of Garth Tapper or Trevor Moffitt - and a more abstract schematised style-such as cubism or futurism. In this middle-ground a painter has a limited range of options: and most of them were taken up earlier this century by the Fauvists and the Expressionists. It is therefore not surprising that one finds echoes of Munch, Rouault and Beckmann in Brown's work. There are deliberate allusions to Brown's teacher Colin McCahon, whose strength of purpose and single-mindedness have had considerable influence; and at art school the artist also admired the English painters Lowry, Bratby, and Spencer.

NIGEL BROWN The Poet's Breakfast 1974
oil on board, 565 x 143 mm. (Collection of Mrs. J. M. Moller, Auckland)

Drawing upon such a range of ' sources a figurative artist risks being dismissed as eclectic; one of the most wounding terms in the art critic's verbal arsenal. A way of avoiding this is to develop a personal set of symbols and characters and so impose upon the paintings a recognisable 'signature' which has the potential for indefinite expansion and refinement. This, of course, is what McCahon has done so superbly over forty years of painting.

In his May 1980 exhibition at the Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, Nigel Brown included six paintings in a series entitled Gains and Losses. The works were a statement about trading off the need to tame the land against the loss of our natural heritage in these isolated islands.

Gains and Losses are two useful headings for drawing up a test to apply to all of Brown's work. And while we are about it perhaps we can try to establish a balance sheet for all artists who want to say something important and deeply felt using a figurative style while at the same time avoiding the traps of superficiality and obfuscation.

NIGEL BROWN Gains & Losses (Version A) 1979
acrylic on canvas, 775 x 607 trim. (Private collection, Auckland)

And so the problem can be seen as one of balance - between theme and depiction, between effective re-use of historical stylistic innovations and the introduction of local context and personal symbolism, between realism and schematisation. In addition there must be vitality, sincerity and commitment to the development of a personal vision (the pre-requisite of McCahon the teacher-by-example). The medium must have a message important enough to justify confronting that gains/losses checklist. Nigel Brown knows the risks and accepts the challenge.

As Brown says, 'McCahon told me way back in '72 to "paint less and think more" - anyway one can learn eventually - ,"fall down, get up". Always there remains the threat of vast blunders - one takes risks, stretches, falls back, and goes from exhilaration to black doubts.'1

In his short but prolific painting career of less than' a decade, Nigel Brown has attained a mature and confident style, grasping the imported tool of expressionism, tempering it with the flame of McCahon and putting it vigorously to work digging out buried deep-rooted angst from the local landscape. Brown's solid, direct style is in harmony with his themes - the drama of pioneer toil, the death of love in the false Eden of suburbia, the subconscious yearning for freedom of the spirit: over-all, a do-it-yourself, made-in-New Zealand feeling. When these emotive and rugged qualities are blended with just the right degree of abstraction in symbols and design, Brown's best paintings result. And it is when Brown lets his penchant for luridly imaginative realism get out of hand that his pictures can take on an awkward, amateurish look. But he does the work and shows it all anyway. He says:
It's very much a matter of going ahead and doing it. No worrying about whether it works or not.2
If it is unrealistic or neurotic it may be rejected by the viewer-if it corresponds with doubts or issues relevant to society it will be of purpose.3

Brown has found that he needs to change from a schematic style to a more realistic style periodically, and vice versa, to avoid boredom and staleness. He clearly sees the difference between such works as the Driveways and Gains and Losses. It is not necessarily the case that a series will begin in a realist vein and gradually, become more schematic.

NIGEL BROWN Pride & Shame Triptych 1980
acrylic on Fabriano, 3 sheets each 785 x 785 mm.

The artist will switch back and forth from one approach to the other. A good example is the recent Tour Protest series: which contains realistically treated oils painted in Thames and vigorously schematic lino- and woodcuts printed in Auckland, all done more or less at the same time.

Many of Brown's paintings have the feel of a tableau or set piece. As he says:
I work with archetypes rather than the particular person. All my archetypes are aspects of myself or people I know. I like the position, and adopt it naturally, of telling things from a 'let's pretend' standpoint - much of my work has stage and actor analogies.3

In common with other figurative painters Nigel Brown works in series - some limited and some quite extensive in scope. A brief description of each in chronological order may be found below. It is a statistical inevitability that a prolific artist working as Nigel Brown works will come out on the down side of the gains and losses test occasionally. Brown has said 'I show just about everything I do. I don't worry about presenting a consistent image. I find it very hard to decide whether or not any of the work is successful'2

It is useful to look at some less accomplished works and, by applying the checklist, attempt to identify reasons why these pictures lack the edge of the more successful series.

NIGEL BROWN Family Table 1975
oil on board, 575 x 338 mm
(Collection of Marti and Gerrard Friedlander)

Analysing the reasons why some works misfire helps us to better appreciate the qualities in the successful paintings, which are a comfortable majority of Brown's oeuvre to date. They all score a straight 8 Gains on testing and, taken together, establish Nigel Brown as a young painter who has defined his own path and is resolutely following it with increasing maturity and assurance.

Because of the artist's working methods you never know what to expect from a Nigel Brown exhibition. Those who have followed his output to date and have seen the losses as well as the gains should have developed a respect for Brown's courageous determination to paint what he wants to, has to, paint.

Let the artist have the last word. 'I hope this keeps you up to date on my stubborn and instinctive activities - you might as well know I have no choice but to go on, whatever . . . '1

1. Letter to the author dated July 1982
2. Marti Friedlander and Jim & Mary Barr, Contemporary New Zealand Painters. Volume 1, A-M (Wellington, 1980) p 34 
3. Letter to the author dated 12.8.82

(1) Using figuration at least some part of the message can be guaranteed to be communicated to most viewers.
(2) The work is likely to have a reasonably broad appeal to those who expect art to have 'message' and 'content'.
(3) By forging personal symbols and themes, using recurring motifs and characters and an individual palette, a recognisable style can quickly be developed.
(4) Much pioneering work done in the past by the Post-impressionists, Fauvists, Expressionists and other Realists can be drawn upon, but reinterpreted for New Zealand spiritual and material conditions.
(5) The Fauvists/Expressionist heritage opens the door to a free use of colour for expressive, structural or design purposes.
(6) Once a style has been established one has a ready language to speak with, and a continuing dialogue with one's audience can be carried on.
(7) Committed to figuration and style, the artist can embark on a long period of gradual development, refinement, restatement and enlargement of his vision.
(8) If he can endure, the artist can perhaps outlast the others who lack his commitment and merely follow trends and fashions.

NIGEL BROWN Lemon Tree 1977
acrylic on paper, 450 x 300 mm.

(1) There is a risk of making it all too slick, too easy. if a simplified style is used it can be seen as 'banal' or 'naive', while a highly-worked style can be 'pretentious' or 'decorative'.
(2) While one may win over some landscape adherents one is sure to alienate the purists, the avant-garde and lovers, of minimal or geometric abstraction.
(3) Symbols are dangerous because they can be overworked, misinterpreted or trivialised.
(4) Critics will cry 'eclectic', easily pick out sources and confound the artist with them.
(5) The intensity and range of colour must be kept under very careful control to avoid garishness or a 'forced' look to the finished work.
(6) If the content and relevance of the artist's message does not measure up to the presentation, or vice versa, the work will seem superficial or else obscure.
(7) Impatient critics will call for a change of style, more or less abstraction etc., and may tend to write off the artist if he is going through an arid period. He may appear old-fashioned, in a rut, 'mannerist' or uninspired.
(8) The tide of modernity may leave him permanently washed up.

Ten Years Of Nigel Brown's Painting

The Major Series 1972 To 1982
BICYCLES: Rather soft, surrealistic bicycles placed in unlikely situations on pediments or seen front-on in rows like horned cyclopses. These works were done in a style used by the artist in student studies but not employed since. The style seems to have been too soft a tool for a strong-minded artist, and the symbols, lacking, any message, had nowhere to go. (Losses 3 and 6 on the checklist.)

MONUMENTS: Quite an extensive and important series inspired by the distant view of One Tree Hill from the artist's home in Titirangi. The monument is sometimes seen close up, at other times far away. in some works the Manukau Harbour intervenes to create a reflecting pool. in the foreground is a line of suburban houses, including an ark-like shape created by two driveways curving up either side of a house, seen from the artist's window. In the mornings the skyline forms a silhouetted frieze of chimneys, hip roofs, parked cars and people. In some pictures sombre writing appears in the sky, a direct influence from Brown's teacher McCahon and a foreshadowing of the bold word-frames used later in the Lemon Tree and other series.

Also appearing in some of the Monuments is Brown's dog Luther, a wayward beast which got off-side with the neighbours and became a symbol for the instinctive, disruptive, free spirit, the wanderer, the sexual adventurer and aggressor. This series included water colours as well as oils. It won critical acclaim and first brought Brown to the attention of Auckland collectors. These were strong images with strong symbolic power - the obelisk acting as a lightning rod for mysterious forces lurking in the clouds; or perhaps a graven image to be cast down on the day of judgement. And the message was strong also - the artist alienated from the community, the suburbanite spun out to the rim of the turntable looking in to the pivotal point.

NIGEL BROWN Axe and Spanner 1981 
acrylic on canvas, 800 x 1290 mm.

DRIVEWAYS.. In the Auckland suburb of Titirangi steeply sloping sections necessitate driveways which cut into the hillsides and shoot up abruptly from the roadway to an out-of-sight house. Periodically the residents descend these unwelcoming accessways to collect the milk and paper, to go shopping or to work, like eskimos emerging from an igloo tunnel. The artist created a stage out of the ramp, the cutting and the road upon which small suburban dramas were played out. Here appeared the poet, James K. Baxter, drinking other people's milk, reading their papers or sleeping (? dying) inconsiderately across the drive, blocking the path.

Also making his debut was the black-singleted axeman, crudely hacking down some native trees to tidy up the frontage. Both these characters are seen much of in later works.

This series made a further statement on the indifference of a community to its artists (in this case, its poets), and about the communication gap when a family withdraws up a steep unwelcoming drive. Excavated paths and driveways slice the land and axes slice the trees to clear building sites.

These small paintings won the artist more admirers and gained him a reputation as a young man to watch.

PLAYGROUNDS. Here the scene shifts to Tamariki Park, a local playground, and the backdrop becomes the hill behind the kids' swings with its curving access path reminiscent of a McCahon waterfall. in the best of these paintings the poet tries to communicate his barefoot vision to the indifferent locals, but they treat him like a 'dirty old man'. In other works businessmen disport themselves on the swings while local yokels pose brutishly in denim gear.
TABLES: Now the stage-like setting is the family breakfast table, titled up cubist-style with the black cross formed by a four paned window in the centre background. The family groups seated around the tables are all beset by despondency. The adults' heads are often tilted to one side in an attitude used by McCahon and derived from traditional church art. Other references to McCahon in the series are the ochre and black colouring, the brushwork in the corners of the room, the cross shape and, just to show that the artist is paying his respects to his teacher by these allusions, reproductions of McCahon paintings on the walls. The 'bowed head' is used by Brown in many later paintings, another addition to the artist's repertoire of symbols and stylistic devices.

To relieve the serenity of the square setting each painting contains curves, in chairbacks, bowls or plates. The view out the window is of regenerating kauri bush and the face of the child in the high chair is innocent and carefree, striking sparks of hope in the domestic gloom.

Here we find some strong, memorable images, bringing together cohesively several lines of development. Firstly, a considered acknowledgement to McCahon in the colour and structure of the works. Secondly the despair theme - 'why hast thou forsaken me?' - so eloquently expressed in the attitudes of the figures. Thirdly the use of an accentuated cubist perspective as a compositional device. Contrasts between the innocence of the child and the world-weariness of the parents, between Black and White, hope and despair, plates (circles) and tables (squares) added to the accomplished balance of these works.
POSTMEN. A small series featuring posties on bicycles delivering mail in suburbia. The postman is gloomy and those who get no mail are angry or disappointed. One suspects that the letters are probably tax assessments or rate demands, so nobody is winning.

Clad in G.P.O. grey, the colour of bureaucracy, are the postmen harbingers of mortality - or of redemption? These paintings speak of the burden of bearing and of receiving the harsh message of today. Light letters, heavy tidings ... Worse still if the postman passes you by.

BEDROOMS: In the main, this series featured a single (usually female) figure in a centrally-positioned bed. The legs under the blankets humped them into shapes like the hills in McCahon's painting Takaka, Night and Day. The bowed head of the figure again conveyed a sense of loss, loneliness, rejection. In a departure from the norm the artist produced some cross-shaped paintings in this series. The artist intended to portray loneliness, but coming hard on the heels of the Table series the message became mixed with portrayal of the family. Does the woman hate her husband, her family or herself? Or is she just tired or ill? Awkward design and colour and the even more awkward reference to McCahon's hills completed the breakdown. (Losses 1, 3, 5 and 6.)
DETTOL ANGELS.. A small group of works on paper done while the artist was on holiday at Whangaparoa. The angels wield the sword from the antiseptic bottle label.
HOLIDAY BACHES: Small paintings of hideaways in the bush with no particular message. These link with a lino cut of cottages at Thames done by Brown in 1982.

NIGEL BROWN Life Tree, Life Tree 1983
acrylic on canvas, 2860 x 1800 mm.

LEMON TREES: These works divide into two sets - small acrylics on paper and larger oils on board. All feature the figure of the symbolic black-singleted kiwi male, sometimes joined by members of his family, kneeling before a wizened, struggling backyard lemon tree. In a manner derived from Rouault all the works are bordered by loosely-painted frames and these frames contain brief phrases (samples: weeping weeping bitter by the lemon tree. . . Don't you see its green leaves sprouting?). In the final work in 1979 the tree has died after bearing one perfect yellow fruit, and the figure kneels bereft, helplessly questioning nature's will.

Here we have an exquisite group of small icons for a backyard shrine. Drawing unashamedly on the work of Rouault, Brown re-interpreted that European vision in a New Zealand setting. The pathos of the axeman, showing his spiritual side as he falls on his knees before the visible fruit of his faith and toil, is balanced by some of the finest use of colour in all Brown's work.
AXEMEN-DOMINIONBITTER: A small series of strong paintings featuring the black-singleted man flexing his muscles, displaying his axe and drinking his Dominion Bitter beer. The axemen appeared in a number of settings-surveying a tamed landscape of hills, posing defensively with their families, quaffing that allegorical ale, and generally asserting their masculinity, while at the same time coming across as tragic figures, trapped in their own self-images and burdened with a sense of loss and guilt for a ravished land. These ironic works conveyed the message that after brutishly dominating the land the man must drink from the bitter cup of regret for a lost paradise.

VAN GOGHS: In homage to that pioneering individualist of modern art Brown clads him in a black singlet and depicts him enduring his trials and sufferings in a New Zealand setting.
LAND & PEOPLE: A somewhat low-key formal series placing the farming family against the grassy broken-in hills with the odd tree-fern remnant. The stagey quality of many of Brown's works was particularly noticeable here. The pictures seem to be saying 'this is New Zealand'. The viewer must make his own assessments and conclusions.
FROM SUBURBIA: With this series Brown recapitulated some previous themes while introducing a whole new set of symbols - rockets, kites, joggers and multiple skylines. In this, his most stylised and dramatic series to date, Brown used predominately ochre, black, white and gold, with very dominant lettering in trapezoid frame-shapes which in some paintings all but overwhelmed the subject. In a monotonous suburban setting the stick-like figure of everyman sought escape of the spirit, by flying a kite, jogging himself into exhaustion along bowling-alley streets or boarding a miraculous Jules Verne rocket which hovered at the top of its inviting ladder in a sky full of golden promise. Brown's dog Luther featured prominently, yapping at the neighbours and tangling in the kite strings. In this way a tension developed in the paintings between mental freedom and physical bondage. The dog of conscience (symbol of commitment to family and convention) dogged the footsteps of everyman, in one memorable painting even leaping up to pull down his frivolously optimistic kite. Acknowledged sources of the rocket image are a slide in Tauranga the artist played on as a child and a device which fires caps when dropped on the ground.

NIGEL BROWN The Reading 1980
acrylic on canvas

FERNS: Brown developed a simplified tree-fern image, something like an Egyptian ankh, and allowed it to proliferate into paintings which became quite diagramatic. This 'tree of life' symbol appears frequently later in the Ark, Cars, Trampers Adam & Eve and Poet series. (Losses I and 3.)
ARKS: A small group of paintings divided up  into black squares each containing a small picture, like a comic book. Central to the theme was the ark image formed by the Arama Avenue house on its ridge, isolated on its boat-shaped island of land by the two driveways curving either side of it. As in the biblical story the ark is visited by, but survives, various disasters and the Adam and Eve inhabitants unite in a new Eden as rainbows appear in the sky.

GAINS AND LOSSES: In these schematic and fanciful works the slice of land which formed the hull of the ark has detached itself and piled up with clones of itself in stacks to form a landscape against which sacrificial pungas bum on altars, rockets appear in the sky, women weep, the axeman asserts his masculinity and houses rock and reel at the impact of it all. With the Ferns and Cars these paintings represent the most extreme departures from reality amongst the schematic works of 1978-1981. (In 1982 the artist returned to his more naturalistic style.) In the Gains and Losses Brown gave free rein to imagination without producing mere emblems (as in the Fern series) or over-dramatised effects (as in the Cars). The paintings were assertive and confident and met the artist's own criteria: 'I don't want my subjects to be unnecessarily obtuse or too easily read. Without ambiguity and contrast, however, the work fails to hold one's psychic curiosity. A good image worries the brain and impresses itself as a question mark'.3
CARS: Brown created a strange boxy car image which, shown in birds-eye view, looked like a concertina. The car careered out of control on curving roads. Colours were strong blues or reds and the effect was in some cases rather garish. Although full of impact (sometimes literally as cars collided) no immediately discernable message came through in these works. (Losses 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6.)
LAST TIME I SAW YOU: Four paintings on paper with a haunting image of a female figure in the distance seen by a male figure in the foreground looking down a hilly and receding road in a lonely landscape.
ADAM & EVE: This two-some was the subject of some of Brown's 1969 student paintings, and they emerged again in 1980, particularly in a fine triptych Pride and Shame, combining the receding road, fern and monument symbols.
POETS: The figure of James K Baxter who appeared in the Driveways achieved true prophetic status in this series. In several large scale works, including one fine triptych, the poet becomes a massive presence - like a figure in a Diego Rivera mural. His solid form sees part of the land and he can no longer be ignored as he was by the suburbanites in the Driveway and Playground series.

NIGEL BROWN Run Women Run 1983
acrylic on canvas, 2900 x 1800 mm.

TRAMPERS: Stick-like figures with heavy packs, ferns, steep tracks and waterfalls and a return of the words forming part of the picture frame. The artist explains that the images are drawn from unpleasant memories of a hunting trip with his father when the party was bush-bound for days, but the message transmitted by the pictures was unclear. New Zealanders carry heavy weights up hills because they enjoy it, and they are free to lay down the burden whenever they like. Freedom to wander through the unspoiled parts of our land is one of our special privileges. The use of trampers as an analogy for the burden and struggle of life in general put too much strain on the images. The result was unconvincing. (Losses 1, 3 and 6.)
MOTORWAYS: In this interesting series Brown created in paint the look of woodcuts, with their gouged-out short lines and black/ white contrast. This can be seen as a natural experiment for an artist with links to the Expressionists, who of course made the woodcut their special preserve. Some of the bold, blocky, colourful effects of earlier work were exchanged for qualities of line and pattern, although still with dramatic impact. The works were painted on unframed canvas fitted with eyelets and this complimented the looser character of the paintings.
CLOTHESLINES: The artist depicted an Onehunga backyard as a boat (? another Ark), its high fences forming the hull. Masts were telephone poles on the road and the foremast was the standard square clothesline. The featureless lawn was the deck and the simple house became the boat's superstructure. The clothesline, a similar shape to Brown's stylised fern tree, stood like a totem being worshipped by the housewife bedecking it in ceremonial nappies. The boat was no doubt adrift in the suburban sea and in danger of foundering.

PROTESTS: The Springbok Tour is a rich source of images for an artist of Brown's persuasion - visors, helmets, shields, batons, placards and inevitable confrontation as blue-coated policemen bash bleeding protesters in graphic scenes of violence. He has treated the subject realistically so far.
NED KELLYS: in a rather puzzling combination Ned's famous armoured helmet is placed on the Axeman - perhaps to underline the point that the conservation movement is now gunning for him.
NUDES: A more revealing version of the Bedrooms series. The figures are not tied in to any particular setting and their expressive power is therefore less pointed than that of figures in other series.

NIGEL BROWN His Past Lives 1981
acrylic on canvas, 920 x 1340 mm. (Private collection, Auckland)

PAST LIVES: A distinct new group of works showing the mystical link between the past and the present, the spiritual and the material selves. Another successful use of schematisation to make a fresh convincing statement. Skinny male and female forms, standing on a plain which evokes the Last Time I Saw You series, project their spirits on to the astral plane.
LIFE TREES: Prints and paintings showing the symbolic Tree of Life bedecked with established 'Brown' figures and objects. Perhaps less convincing than Past Lives, but with strong graphic impact.
RUNNERS: Auckland's Cornwall Park (One Tree Hill) is overrun (literally) with joggers these days. These paintings, which juxtapose the obelisk with the running figure, reuse two earlier images. The contrast between the monumental static object and the small mobile figure is not exploited to the full and this series is capable of more complex extensions.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 28 Spring 1983