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Nigel Brown remembers going to see a Sidney Nolan survey sometime in the mid-1970s, and chancing upon his former art school teacher, Colin McCahon.

"We ended up looking at it together," he says. "I can't remember much of the conversation, but he realised it was in a different direction to his own work, which at that time was moving into more abstract forms.

"I was attracted to [Nolan], but Colin was not interested in his obvious storytelling," says Brown, whose Lamp series - opening on Tuesday at the Warwick Henderson Gallery - includes the unashamed influence of McCahon, as well as borrowing the Ned Kelly mask so memorably used by the Australian painter.

The starting point for the series is an early McCahon of a kerosene lamp. The now anachronistic lighting device serves as a metaphor for casting light on people's lives. "I try to deal with archetypal symbols which will last the distance," Brown says.

The largest painting in the series, Hide and Seek, is a triptych grouping three of the characters Brown often uses: the poet James K. Baxter, a burly male in the Ned Kelly mask and Captain James Cook, in this case accompanied by his wife,

"Baxter is always the symbol of someone who sacrificed a lot to thinking, who went on a mental journey and tried to find out about New Zealand on a spiritual basis in the relationship to the land," Brown says.

Cook signifies the age of reason and logic, while the central Kelly figure could be the New Zealand male. Brown saw the Ned Kelly armour this year in the Victoria State Library in Melbourne. "I was struck by the way it related to the DIY tradition. It was completely low-tech, clumsy, roughly made, and that is the thing I was drawn to."

Brown admits his former teacher would have rejected a lot of what he is doing now as a way forward. The triumph of McCahon's antipodean modernism, his ability to create a painting that existed purely on its own terms, not as landscape, not as portrait or allegory, has always eluded Brown, but nor has it been something he has sought.

"McCahon held people like Cezanne in awe, the whole modernist thing of reduced form. I am mixing that up with pictorial things he had long discarded."

Another artist Brown associated with, Phil Clairmont, also used light sources in his work to signify some sort of transformation - usually the "sickly electric glow" of a naked bulb illuminating his interior world.

Brown says his first Ned Kelly paintings were done in the mid-1980s in Thames.

"I did them just after staying with Phil at Mangamahu [in the Wanganui back country] ... [with] his whole idea of the painter under siege. They did have predecessors in the 1981 Springbok Tour paintings, where the police had masks."

Clairmont is also the New Zealand artist most associated with the triptych. "I love it as a format," says Brown. "You have the three possibilities. It's a good number balance-wise, the sides talk to the middle, back and forth.

"[German Expressionist] Max Beckmann, who influenced Clairmont, when you look at him in relation to Nolan, he is a lot more complicated psychologically. Nolan is a very simple storyteller and a very fast painter."

Brown has gone back to using text around his paintings, in the manner of icons or stamps. "It does irritate some people enormously. You have to think of it as a mixing of mediums. If it comes naturally, make it a natural part of the thing. I often wake up with a line in my head to go round the borders of a painting. Then I have to think how to create something in the middle to go with it."

It is something Brown says goes back to his days at art school in Auckland. "[Then Elam lecturer] Greer Twiss said words are a trigger for me. McCahon suggested if I was to use words in the way I was using them, I should put them in borders to separate them.

"In the 80s I rejected it as a formula, and it is only in the last four or five years that words have been coming more naturally from me.

"It's an area beset by the dangers of pretension and pomposity. They can wreck a painting. But if they are around the border, once you read them, they are a graphic pattern - it happens quite quickly.

"What I tried to do with things like words is push myself into new directions. You have to progress the thinking. As you go further into it, you find things are not as simple as you thought when you were young.

"The whole thing builds up so you become better at what you are saying and covering a wider scope."

Gallery
What: Lamp by Nigel Brown.
Where and when: Warwick Henderson Gallery, 32 Bath St, Parnell, Oct 14 to Nov 8.Nigel Brown