Nigel Brown makes me want to paint – the way Bob Dylan makes me want to sing or Jessie Ryder makes me want to hit a cricket ball. Every canvas spills. Whenever I look at a painting I want to pick up a brush and get messy straightaway. It feels as though the kids next door have asked me to play. You don’t have to be able to hold a straight line or mix a subtle colour. You just have to feel and feel and feel and feel. Anyone can have a crack. It is not important to reproduce faithfully. It is enough to suggest, lay down colour and image rough enough to get the gist. The best paintings invite conversation, drawling laconically around the fire at night talking hyperbole – but it’s good hyperbole – and everyone is welcome and no one talks too flash.
Their stories are found in the way their images sit together. In lots of ways though they are not really images – they are a language. Really they are words. Nigel Brown places them in relation to each other as if he was writing a poem. I think of him most accurately as a great white Tuwhare. He has been collecting motifs for a lifetime, dragging them behind him like tin cans tied to a wedding car: dogs, cats, arks, ponga, men, women, birds, Jim Baxter, James Cook and Ned Kelly. By now he hasn’t got a hope of shutting them up. What matters is that they always mean more than simply what they look like. When he paints he really writes – just prettier.
And they are all part of a game. Paintings are flat – usually. They have tricks to make them look deeper than they are, shading, perspective, other stuff I don’t know about. Having an image with a history, a reference to another painting, landscape, person, or situation is another way of doing it I suppose. There are whole books’ worth of thinking in some of Nigel Brown’s images and they can’t help but fatten any painting. But that’s not why he does it.
New Zealand is a young country – it is our landscape that is old; immense and varied, lush, harsh, fecund and grotesque. There is a gap between our collective grip and the old fish and I suppose we are always trying to love her enough, feel the same sense of enduring. Myths are a way of bringing her down to size, or more importantly, inflating ourselves till we are on the same scale as the sky and sea and land. Icons do this. They pack heaps of meaning into an image – make it more than it is, give us a sense of something before us and beyond us to worship. Myths are cultural mountains and our offerings to the real thing. But I don’t think this is why Nigel Brown makes them either.
Writing doesn’t so much make other people think. It makes you think yourself. And Nigel Brown’s paintings think aloud. They are a working out and because Nigel Brown is one of us and concerned with the same things we are concerned with they are part of our own working out as well. If we are in free space – and most of the time it feels as though we are – then points of reference are essential and if there aren’t many around because, for Pakeha at least, we are a young culture, or the old ones have lost their power, then imbuing what is right in front of us with permanence is as good a choice as any. More than this it says that the act of creation is the permanence and solid ground we seek. If we deem it so, it is. Beyond this it is compassionate and democratic and humble to see significance in the ordinary.
When I was a child I used to follow my father to work in the holidays. He was a builder and every day I arrived on the building site I would be introduced to a heady jungle of half-finished framing, four by twos and freshly poured concrete – but that was only half the attraction. Peopling that mad forest would be a strange menagerie of slightly skewed characters; my father, his brothers, my cousin Les, Vic the bricklayer, Jeff the plumber, Uncle Tom and Gav his younger brother who blew things up on occasion. From every imaginary tree in their bush – a doorframe or windowsill or top plate perhaps – would flow a constant stream of twitter – all of it a magnificent teasing, a pungent hybrid of boast, set-up and coup de grace. The whole site seemed at times like a barnyard of cocks crowing. ‘Belly idiots,’ my grandfather would opine when he came to help pour the floors, shouting over the rhythmic grind of the concrete mixer for me to ‘lay-off with the wet stuff,’ reminding me that ‘water is the enemy of cement’. The way they talked was funny and what they said was clever. They would use irony and understatement and metaphor to make a point, prick bubbles, entertain and pass the time of day. They would say something by not saying it or by overstating it or by turning it upside down. They would compare a character to what they are most obviously not, pretend the dead were alive, deliberately mix up associations and generally tutu with the whole world order. Lines would fly back and forth between them at speed generating new retorts, scaffolds, bends in the language and laughter at whoever was being pilloried.
It was a piss-take but it was also a way of saying that sometimes there are no particular rules in a given situation apart from the ones you come up with – everything has a connection if you can find the link and make it with charm. The disparate are especially related. It was deeply subversive. It meant nothing and everything at the same time but they’d look at me blankly if I told them any of this now. ‘He’s deep,’ one’d say, nailing up the fascia. ‘Hope he drowns,’ would come the reply from whoever was digging the drain.
People think that nothing happens when fathers speak like this. It’s rubbish talk – he korero noa iho. But you can get away with a lot of what you really think if you pretend you’re joking. It is almost an art in itself and a response to the great silence, and democratic at its core. Everyone is worthy of the same derision with whatever you can get your hands on. Those men held a tone and tone it seems many years later listening to Nigel Brown’s paintings is as important as what is being said. Teasing is not just teasing. It is a very New Zealand dialectic. Nigel Brown’s paintings tease – almost as much as the man himself. They are part of a game. They are part of a very serious game. This is how it works for me. We have the same fathers.
The first time I saw a picture of Captain Cook was on a card in a Weet-Bix packet. It was the first place I saw Maori for that matter. I was a child. In the New Zealand of that time perhaps both were considered exotic. Over the next thirty years Maori broke out of the cardboard box but somehow Captain Cook seemed to remain a lantern-jawed relic, interesting for all that but long since dead, that was, until the resurrection.
I will never forget staring at ‘Second paradise: Opoutama, Tolaga Bay,’ many years later. I’m not even sure where I was at the time. It was one of the first Nigel Brown paintings I had seen and I felt like pounding the air with a fist when I did. Captain Cook had risen from the dead. In that painting the explorer is lying back on the grass taking it easy. Tolaga Bay spreads behind him. It didn’t feel like an old representation of the sextant-eyed sailor staring into the distance but was much more immediate, as though he was wandering around the place in the present tense and had just decided to stretch out at the beach. He was on holiday, the past made present and dwelling among us. As quick as that, the association was made. Cook was one of us, an ancestor, a reference point, the quintessential Pakeha caught exquisitely between debunking mythologies and creating enlightenment only to see his spirituality thin out and disappear behind him. He was our presence, our ghost. Nigel Brown was teasing, pulling Cook’s leg and ours, saying something profound with a well aimed nudge in the ribs.
Nigel Brown’s first exhibition exploring Cook as an image in his painting took place seventeen years ago. In that time Cook himself has been colonized by Brown: Cook as ancestor, Cook as explorer, Cook the technocrat, Cook as Pakeha have all been points along the way. In this current working-over, however, a more doubtful Cook emerges. In the painting ‘Life’s not fair’ he is troubled and beset. A tiki looks over his shoulder; the hound on his bowsprit snarls a threat. The writing around the frame reads his mind, or warns him perhaps: ‘In spite of best laid plans / Discovering life’s not fair / All endeavours all resolutions lead to a strange place you can’t turn your back on.’
This is a comment on Cook’s life and death, his fall a consequence of his rise. Not only was the Polynesia he explored the means of his death but the seeds of that death were sown in his brave but ultimately flawed attempts at reconciling exactly who discovered whom in the end. But because Cook is also an icon for Pakeha it is also a comment on Pakeha colonization of Maori and the New Zealand landscape. Pakeha may have made deep inroads into what has seemed a ‘new’ land but it was never ‘new’ and now that our spear has penetrated to the heart of it, the deep power of both Maori and the land have absorbed the insult and are now impacting on us. Much of our spirituality was left at the entry wound and now that which we do draw on is often in the hands of those we have come to enlighten. The path back is obliterated; the way forward is, in part, the assimilation we sought to impose.
In lots of ways, though, doubt is not a bad thing. Doubt and guilt are Pakeha taonga. Doubt can save us. It contains possibility and is uncomfortable and drives us to more solid ground. Perhaps we are ready to be sadder but wiser at last. Our spirituality demands humility, and humility demands an awareness of our shortcomings and wrong turns. Doubt falls on us like fresh rain after years of arrogant, bleaching sun. It is not a tragedy that Cook doubts; perhaps there is some hubris in it but mostly it’s a relief.
The transformation that Cook makes at the end of Nigel Brown’s brush can be further seen as the explorer himself becomes part of a wider New Zealand society in ‘All our days,’ holding court in our consciousness along with all that has shaped our landscape, our arts and our culture. It is even more dramatically evident though in the transformation of Cook into a Maori figure. He is being colonized at the same time Pakeha are being colonized by resurgent and creative Maori. Perhaps Brown is also hinting that along with being a Pakeha ancestor Cook may be a Maori one as well. This is in part because Pakeha have well and truly mixed their bloodlines with Maori, making it literally accurate but also I suspect it resonates because as Pakeha and Maori have bashed up against each other on the cultural coastline they have been shaped by each other and their reaction to each other. Their struggle is incorporated into the way they see themselves and Cook and what he represents is at the core of that process for Maori, like it or not.
In ‘All our days’ it seems to me that Nigel Brown is reflecting on a great turning of the tables. Captain Cook the discoverer is being discovered. The process of exploration has led him in turn to be appraised and seen through the eyes of the other. For the best part of the last twenty years the old master has been on a fourth great voyage at the hands of another old master and this time he is the landscape encountered. It seems to me that Cook’s journey is also a Pakeha journey. It is an exquisite tease, the message sold with a nod and a wink by hunters in the Urewera and by builders in South Auckland, their tongues held firmly in cheek – or poked out of it as the case may be.
Originally accompanied the All Our Days exhibition, Milford Galleries, 2009