Brent Wong


NameBrent Wong (he/him)
Country of BirthAotearoa
Place of ResidenceMuriwai
EthnicitiesCantonese Chinese, Pākeha
ArtformVisual arts, Music
Decades Active1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s


Brent Wong is a painter and musician whose distinctive works are often described as psychological and surreal. Many depict landscapes with vast skies, dominated by imagined fragments of architecture such as decorative cornices and monolithic assemblages of these features. Mostly self-taught, especially as a painter, Wong began to exhibit in the mid-1960s and became one of the country’s most recognised painters. Head of Art at Webb’s, Charles Ninow, has said: “Brent Wong’s painting style has a unique quality that resists being grouped with any one New Zealand artistic canon — it is his peculiar blend of spiritual ruminations coupled with realism-turned-surrealism that makes him a solitary figure.”

Born in Ōtaki, Wong’s family moved to Pōneke Wellington early in his childhood. They lived with his uncle, above his shop on Vivian Street. The architecture that surrounded them, particularly the heavy ornamentation that featured on the buildings, made an impact on Wong and would later become a recurring motif in his paintings. His older brother and fellow painter, Wong Sing Tai (Harry Wong), is also a well-known artist.

Wong studied art in high school and began studying at Wellington Polytechnic’s School of Design in 1963, but left after a few months as he was really interested in studying fine arts, and the course had become more focused on design just before he began studying. In 1965 he took up a job at the Dominion newspaper. This period introduced him to a cultural circle of writers, musicians and intellectuals — as well as “providing the young painter with inexhaustible supplies of newsprint”. Wong explains that when work temporarily waned, he would draw images on the newsprint using a ballpoint pen, some of which became the basis for later paintings.

His finely tuned sense of colour and light was influenced by painters such as Turner, Kandinsky, and Klee. He has also spoken of an interest in the American painter Andrew Wyeth and, like Wyeth, Wong’s paintings convey an interest in psychological interiority and feelings of isolation, tension and anticipation.

His paintings were first exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1967 and his first solo exhibition followed two years later, in 1969, with the exhibition of 12 paintings at Rothmans Gallery (later the Wellington Cultural Centre). Reflecting on this debut a decade later, Neil Rowe wrote in Art New Zealand (Winter 1979): “The impact of these paintings, with their haunting enigmatic quality, highly original imagery and surrealistic bite, coupled with the excellence of their draughtsmanship, excited extravagant critical attention: and overnight established the previously unknown Brent Wong as an important painter in the local context.”

Wong’s paintings became more meditative in tone throughout the 1970s onwards. The abandonment of the ‘structure’ works in the early 1970s was followed by a brief exploration of symbolic works. While there are autobiographical narratives that can be read into Wong’s work, with his paintings featuring heavy use of symbolism to evoke psychological themes, these are open-ended. Contemporary reviews suggested that he points “to the dilemma of New Zealand’s identity”, while Rowe wrote that “The conspicuous absence of human life is related to the machinations of the ghost-like hovering constructions, or to the malevolent, supernatural power invested in the landscape itself.” In 1976, Wong developed small colour studies, which continued to explore the depiction of land, sea and cloudscapes, but formed a foundation for what the artist describes as “all new visual ideas and experiments, which was a major development.”

Wong’s work has been featured in many of the canonical publications surveying New Zealand painting, including 200 Years of New Zealand Painting and An Introduction to New Zealand Painting 1839-1980 by Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith. His work is also held in the collections of public art institutions around the country, such as Te Papa, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

In 2008 Wong decided to cease painting to instead focus on music composition, which is a long-held interest. He now lives on the West Coast of the North Island.


Key works / presentations

2012 — Brent Wong: Abandoned Works 1970–2008, Corbans Estate Arts Centre, Tāmaki Makaurau

2006 — Brent Wong: Early watercolours and recent paintings, Janne Land Gallery, Pōneke

1996 — Ferner Gallery of Fine Arts, Tāmaki Makaurau

1977–78 — Brent Wong: a survey exhibition, The Dowse Art Gallery, Te Awakairangi ki Tai, touring exhibition

1975 — Figurative art now: 9 New Zealand artists, Barrington Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau

1969 — Rothmans Gallery, Pōneke

Related entries

Last updated: 5 March 2024 Suggest an Edit


Brent Wong: Abandoned Works 1970–2008, catalogue, Corbans Estate Arts Centre, 2012

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