These three big works by Nigel Brown explore the condition of history. Vanishing, yet still potent symbols speak from the painted depths of an Arcadia in our country — one that never really existed except in that most powerful of all ways — as a set of beliefs, as a notion of ourselves, The ancient illusions of a wider humanity are also present. They strongly inform these works. Here one sees the confusions, the follies, the gesticulations, the hopes of our race, set in this case in a strongly vernacular New Zealand.
Each painting is named from the argot of New Zealand speech — not Māori, but settler English; a pithy, unsentimental language of people ribbing one another in pub-speak, sportfield-speak, farm-speak. At first there seems to be almost no connection between the titles and the works, but the naming is open-ended and allows a wide variety of things to go on in the paintings. Harsh phrases, these words condense the sound of parochial New Zealand, its nasal music.
Gutless Wonder Shot Through carries many messages about our pastoral idyll. Pull Yah Socks Up? takes us back to the bullying schools of the 1950s and ‘60s, but juxtaposes on that a crazy theatre of imagery, a Samuel Beckett world of dislocated structures and totems. Saw This Coming sounds like the tight-lipped farmer-hero facing a natural disaster, but there is no such hero in this painting — only a tower surmounted by massive lifting devices, behind which a gigantic handsaw floats diagonally in the centre sky.
These paintings are allegories. Allegory combines the sense of speaking both publicly and figuratively. It comes from the classical Greek allegorein, to speak figuratively and in public. Brown’s work ties in with such an etymology His paintings are not private fantasies, but are public symbolism, writ large, and are meant to connect with the community. They assemble a visual language of objects that are metaphors of our collective condition. Like all allegory they present a system of signs that stand for themselves and something other than themselves. Not all the objects in the paintings are familiar, but none are entirely strange. They are made mainly out of the stuff of life here, but they tie back to the grand architecture of folly — the architecture of the Babel tower. The central axis of each work is a rearing structure. One need think only of the pyramids of Egypt and Central America, the steeples of Christianity, the secular towers of our money-cities and that most famous Biblical tower, all being thrust skyward by often questionable aspiration:
“let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” i
But the ancient sky god of the Middle East, Jahweh, objects to this presumption, seeing it as the beginning of an all-too-human megalomania:
“and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.” ii
Brown has seized on the archetypal tower, placing it in a context that has both secular and religious overtones. In our remote antipodes he has sensed the city/tower impulse that has been with us for millennia:
“Moulding your original brick sun-fired for the walls of Ur we came down through you…
to name the towers of Karkemish
and the spreading zones of wrath, came down, temple by temple
mouthing god as one word
spelled from the female earth.” iii
This confusion of high architecture, human language, human identity, the identity of god, the naming of divinity, the illusion that heaven is a material state above the earth adds up to a complex of symbolism instinctively developed in these three paintings. Their towering structures are rigged with ideas that go back to the very beginnings of human cities in India and Babylonia, and blend the surreal with the familiar. They are of a tradition in art that has millennial and apocalyptic themes. Hieronymous Bosch was using similar references to the familiar and the fantastic, the mythological and the profane, the natural and the supernatural in his great triptychs such as The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch saw a moral and spiritual fabric forever being torn by human folly and venality. Five hundred years on and Brown is making images here that speak of engineering, the engineering so beloved by Homo sapiens in the industrial revolution that has now been indulged in to the point of destruction. Bosch sees human fate against a backdrop of final things and divine judgement. Brown sees us facing the judgements of nature, society, ecology.
The matter of false gods and overpowering temples is most clear in Saw This Coming. Two human figures and a dog walk the vast plinth of the holy-of-holies at the base of some steps leading to a door high in the side of the tower. Aspects of nineteenth century technics, massive in construction, are aggregated into the tower’s form. This is the shrine of the god of pragmatism, the artisan god who spearheaded the pioneering of New Zealand, the god of ‘can-do’ and mechanism. What is ‘coming’ is not a messiah of spiritual regeneration, but a robot.
Implicit in the structure are the war-machines of Classical and Mediaeval civilisation, which can be seen also as the cogs, ratchets and gearing of our own industrial revolution, Here is the destructive aspect of William Blake’s Albion, once a male fertility figure of ancient Europe, now a giant forging the metals, the forms for a world of materialism.
The tower in Pull Yah Socks Up? is another enormity, its mechanical power directed, ironically, to the hoisting up of a substantial pair of work socks. New Zealand and Pacific history are painted into the totem figures: Captain Cook and a Māori head carved from the same timber pole, an Easter Island head mounted on wooden stick legs that emerge from a pair of gumboots, a voodoo figure clad in a black and green check bush shirt. The giant gumboots look as if they are walking up the road to Babel, but will have to pass a diminutive crucifixion on the way. Three of the human figures are tiny, overwhelmed by other objects in the painting. Then there’s a man in a shirt and tie who faces the head of a gargoyle, bottom right — another totem, this time from the gothic temple history of Europe. Here is the perplexing mix of religious and social symbolism that exists in the contemporary (‘post-modern’?) mind. And the “I AM” signature, just visible between the gumboots — does this tell us that all these disparate ideas add up to a single, unifying human identity?
Gutless Wonder Shot Through does not have a tower as such, but still has a strongly upthrusting structure made of roadway/motorway forms taken from an earlier painting series by the artist. These roads rear up to nowhere but empty sky, where they end abruptly with a leap to destruction — a leap being taken by several fleeing figures, their arms outstretched. The strong vertical axis in all three paintings speaks of our reaching for an elusive sky paradise sited above the bric-a-brac of history. Irony dogs us though, as these images tell: we have to build a staircase to heaven out of the very follies and detritus of the history we are trying to escape, be they the materials of a motorway ramp or a tower of megalomania.
Computers have entered this field of symbolic objects. Their operating lights are mounted in various monumental frames that feature in all three works, and in Gutless Wonder the mad, one-dimensional instructions that they issue to living operators are summed up in the word “Delete”. This is inscribed on a plinth where is seated the Mater Dolorosa of the colonial kitchen. She balances the daffy, black-singleted farmer fleeing from the complexity in a rural setting he can no longer understand. Again, in the bottom right-hand corner is the man with shirt and tie, at work, apparently on a computer, Is he the conjuror of this dance of past and present in the landscape? Is he the new day-labourer whose keyboard fumblings will replace the colonial-physical efforts of the gumbooted land-worker?
These paintings are full of such questions, and the questions are largely without answer. I see the works forming a kind of triptych — the ‘triptych of an incalculable future’, Gutless Wonder Shot Through is the central panel of the triptych: the image of the collapsing Arcadia. On either side of it are the panels of the mechanical towers: the supporting histories of misplaced human devotion and aspiration — problems that have dogged civilisation right from its earliest beginnings.
In the midst of irony and perplexity, and living in a rural New Zealand given over to industrial farming in increasingly stressed landscapes, Nigel Brown has kept his painter’s grip on reality. The reality he offers is the certainty of his style, his painterly language. This is as blunt and forthright, as chunky and monumental in these works as in any of his earlier series’. He has never ceased to be an emphatically figurative painter. There is no tendency towards abstraction in his work. He not only paints subjects we immediately know, but he emphasises their existence in the world. The people, objects, artefacts in his paintings are almost three-dimensional in their insistence on the presence of themselves in the painted world. Brown sculpts them in paint. They are almost actual figures.
The physical identity of things is all-powerful and speaks to us strongly of Taoism’s ‘ten thousand things’ that fill up the world. This does not mean however that Brown is a naïve materialist just copying the objects that exist in our mechanical Arcadia. The ‘presentness’ of his ‘things’ indicates quite the opposite. He allows phenomena, the visual and visible existence of things in his paintings, to speak for themselves. By planting them so firmly in the garden of imagery he gives the viewer the chance to hear their messages directly and to hear them, if they can, with an open mind. ‘Things’ in these paintings are meaningful for what they are in themselves, And what they are in themselves may have many and changing aspects. Every look at every object, figure or form is a new look, a constant return to the stable yet changing actuality of what is seen. It follows that to paint it again and again is constantly to renew it, to change what it emanates — its hum, its resonance of meaning.
The object speaks for itself, yes, but it also speaks through the self of the painter as he perceives it. And to the person seeing the painting it speaks again. An almost limitless field of meaning is created by this, and in such a field the symbolic role of the object is greatly increased. Brown’s solid figures and objects dissolve into meanings that have no material existence at all. They are metaphysical. These meanings inform the objects’ inexplicable presences, and the context that is our social and environmental condition.
Solidity, a stylistic quality in Brown’s painting, is not an equivalent to materialism or exaggerated realism. The gumboots, dogs, singlets, tree ferns, socks and words are built into a context, into compositions that are open-ended in meaning, yet allow us to draw our own conclusions.
This triptych tells of a past, rich with the intersecting of myths. The myths and the objects that represent them in the paintings are a little like the famous fragments of which T. S. Eliot spoke at the end of The Waste Land. They are the bits of a culture now set down in Southland, New Zealand. In the disintegrating world at the end of the 1914-18 war Eliot found a kind of security in such remnants:
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins…” iv
Brown’s fragments are assembled, perhaps more as a prophecy or warning. They tell us we might be overwhelmed by our totems, icons and constructions. We are in danger. Our very inventiveness, the creations of our hands and minds, our abundance of energy, avarice, ambition — these could sweep us, not into a garden of earthly delights, but into a bleak and sterile landscape of social collapse and ecological destruction. What good then the heights touched by our towering architectures?
Denys Trussell is a poet and art commentator, an environmentalist and concert pianist. He has followed the art of Nigel Brown since the 1970s, when he wrote one of the earliest defining essays on the artist’s practice. He is based in Auckland.
i Genesis, 11,4
ii Genesis, 11,6
iii Trussell, Denys ‘Six Evocations of the Unburied City’, from Archipelago, The Ocean Soliloquies, Hudson Cresset, Auckland, 1999, p. 67
iv Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land’, from Collected Poems 1909-62, Faber and Faber, London, 1963, p.79