Exploring NZ influences

18:19, Feb 18 2013

Doors Flung Back at the Diversion Gallery in Picton gives art fans images of life in New Zealand.

Artist Nigel Brown, whose base has been Cosy Nook near Riverton, Southland, for the past 12 years, travelled to Picton to speak at the exhibition opening last Wednesday.

It is the first time he has exhibited at the Diversion but word is out in art circles about the quality works it shows, he tells director Barbara Speedy.

Riverton does not have a prominent arts scene but Brown and his partner, Sue McLaughlin, moved there from Auckland in 2001 to put some adventure back in their lives.

Auckland had been home for Brown, a 1971 Elam Art School graduate, for the previous 33 years and the city had become too safe and secure, he says.

"We needed a fresh environment and we found a coastal place, with sea views and privacy.


"But we didn't move there for the art scene," he adds, "and we didn't move there for the summers! As some of these paintings depict, it has that mix of wilderness and precariousness."

Paintings in Doors Flung Back are described as a renewed exploration of expressionist colour.

Asked to talk about that, he says expressionist work is often interpreted as "anxiety".

He prefers to think of it as organic. "It's made by hand; it's often about people, animals . . . It's a motif."

Men in singlets, a regular feature in Nigel Brown's works, appear in some of the paintings. One, titled Real Kiwi , has a backdrop of square panels behind the man filled with words, identifying and questioning New Zealand life influences.

"I'm not a sociologist . . . as an artist I don't have to come up with the answers," Brown says. "I skirt around on the fringes."

Tutors at the Elam Art School when Brown was a student included Robert Ellis, Garth Tapper and Colin McCahon.

He remembers the latter telling him to "simplify" things. "Keep your palette restrained, you are only a learner," McCahon had advised.

Brown's first exhibition was in 1972 and for the next few years art was a part-time occupation.

"I worked in factories during the day while I painted at night.

"By 1978 I decided to be a fulltime artist."

It was a "precarious" existence, Brown says.

"In the 1970s there was [just] a handful of galleries . . . no-one had any idea it was going to blossom the way it has.

"It used to be a plain, contemporary art scene, a little bit divided between ‘abstract' and ‘figurative'," he says.

In the 1980s things started to change.

Indigenous art gained a higher profile and galleries "of all different sorts" started to open as art became "more commercial".

Forty years on, a high level of art awareness and debate is enjoyed across the community.

Individual artists can produce works without huge budgets and their singular visions combine to form a larger whole.

"For me, [art is] a quiet way of adding to the cultural consciousness," Brown says.

He was awarded the Order of New Zealand Merit in 2004 for his services to painting and printmaking and a year later he was artist in residence at the New Zealand embassy in Moscow.

He says Doors Flung Back is the latest in more than 100 Nigel Brown exhibitions.

"It doesn't make me a better artist," he emphasises, "but it shows I have been persistent, up and down the country."

Ask him what sort of legacy he would like to leave the New Zealand art world, and he says artists have no power to control others' interpretations of their works.

"Hopefully, the meaningful stuff keeps going . . . I would like to be seen long-term as meaningful."

Nigel Brown: Doors Flung Back can be viewed at the Diversion Gallery, London Quay, Picton, until March 25.


The Marlborough Express