Meditation is like a sunlit version of a dream that recurred through my childhood. As I floated in black space, my body locked in that familiar but discomforting sleeping paralysis, giant, heavy girders floated in military-like formations towards me. Ponderous and yet seemingly weightless, they bore down on me and glided past, just inches from my face and body. Transfixed and terrified I was awake enough to know I had to wait it out. Something hangs in the balance in Wong’s painting too.
Brent Wong burst onto the New Zealand art scene in the early 1970s with original imagery, an impressive technical mastery and a refreshingly surrealist take on New Zealand land and sky. Wong was only 24 years old, when in 1969 he hung twelve paintings in the then Rothmans Gallery in Wellington that catapulted him almost overnight from an unknown to an important painter in the local scene. Meditation comes from the period immediately following this first exhibition and shows his sustained creative intensity.
Meditation is anchored by one of Wong’s signature forms – a vast floating architectural structure, as pale as a cloud – that dominates a hallucinogenic sky. The land it hovers over is classic Wong: dry as a bone, spare and emptied of people, reminiscent of the Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay, Canterbury and Central Otago. The foreground weatherboard building is closed and lifeless. While this building could come from any number of small towns known by the Otaki-born artist, it could equally be a faithful copy of a building in 1970s Vivien Street, Wellington, across the road from where Wong was living at the time.
Wong’s idiosyncratic symbolic-literal mix creates a phenomenon not unlike watching an arm-wrestling match between Colin McCahon and Grahame Sydney. Meditation, like so many of his classic early works, conveys both otherworldliness and a crisp paddock literalism. Almost unique in New Zealand art Wong brings the spiritual (or psychological) together with the prosaic, through surreal collisions of real and imagined forms.
Wong’s was an inspired solution to a pernicious problem for painters wanting to convey the weighty presence of these empty, hot, lonely and spiritual landscapes. His works answer the challenge of how to convey ‘big’ feelings in paintings barely a metre square. The oppressive heat and relentless battering of a north-westerly can’t be illustrated. Words are not enough to describe the cinematic breadth of these regions with their wide crisp horizons and infinite skies. However, in Meditation the isolation, loneliness, dereliction and claustrophobia are palpable. But the work is also light; as thin as air… almost hopeful. It is as if the monstrous form appearing over the horizon might not only portend calamity – one of these intense summer afternoon hail bursts that can shred a whole season’s fruit crop in only 10 minutes – but also suggest the awakening of a new spirit. Perhaps it signals the late arrival of Modernism figured as a vast fanciful Ian Athfield structure ballooning its way north along the Wairarapa coast.
Brent Wong, Meditation 1970, acrylic on board, 960 x 1210mm
Previously published in Important Paintings and Sculpture, 27 November 2008, Art+Object 21st Century Auction House, Auckland.