Artist's soaring works have a distinctly NZ flavour

01:28, Sep 27 2012

Don Binney's potent paintings speak eloquently about New Zealand. Solitary birds soaring with outspread wings over strongly moulded landscapes and seabirds swooping over desolate shorelines are infused with a piercing clarity and lyricism.

A Binney painting is unmistakable. The clean, crisp outlines, absence of any human figures and the birds above; his clearly identifiable New Zealand landscapes have become an essential part of our collective imagery. It's a distinctive voice and vision which will not disappear with his death on September 14 in Auckland.

When Binney's paintings were first shown in the early 1960s, they were hailed as a major contemporary reflection of an emerging national identity. His distinctive style received critical acclaim and public success.

Throughout the 60s, he was one of the major voices of New Zealand contemporary art, hugely popular and widely collected.

But by the mid-70s, he found himself and his work "dethroned" by new directions and new artistic voices. The impact of this sea change on an outwardly self- confident, robust and focused personality was traumatic. "It had an immense effect on my work because I lost my natural sense of possession and position and place," he remembered later.

For two decades, Binney explored new artistic roads - montage, collage, effigy heads and multimedia processes. But eventually he would return triumphantly to the imagery by which he was identified.


Binney was educated in Parnell, Auckland, taking classes with John Weeks and R B Sibson, who inspired his lifelong interest in ornithology and conservation. In birdwatching Binney discovered a passage into the landscape and the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with it.

From 1958 to 1961, Binney studied at Elam School of Fine Arts, with tutors who included Ida Eisa, James Turkington, Robert Ellis and Robin Wood.

After gaining a diploma of fine arts, he held his first solo exhibition at Auckland's Ikon Gallery in 1963 and began teaching at Mt Roskill Grammar School.

In 1965, he was included in a survey show of New Zealand painting in London and in the Eight NZ Artists touring exhibition in Australia's state galleries. In 1967, he was the recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council travel fellowship, travelling to Mexico, London, and Australia, before returning to teach at Elam, becoming the senior lecturer in fine arts in 1979.

He was soon being hailed as a young artist destined for even greater things. The art world, however, is a fickle mistress, and Binney eventually found himself displaced by other voices and styles and dismissed as old school.

All this changed when, in 2002, he held an exhibition of work at Marlborough's Grove Mill Winery. The show became a celebration of a resonant voice in New Zealand art. Binney was introduced to a new generation of Kiwis who embraced him warmly.

A natural raconteur, he insisted he'd been "a workshop artist" throughout his professional life. He was not an art theorist.

His life and art always contained a "necessary eclecticism".

"It's necessary to have this quality in your life," he said. "Most artists I've been privileged to know have had passions and interests which are contingent to their art. Everybody is a person of parts and the artist who has other facets to his or her life is a happy individual. These are qualities which will come home to roost from the end of a brush or pencil. Nothing is unimportant. You can't take a vow of abstinence from the rest of the world."

He was made an OBE for services to the arts in 1995. The sense of loss which greeted his death after a heart attack while in hospital in Auckland for an unrelated illness was a testament to his enduring art and standing.

Christchurch arts advocate John Stringer wrote: "His work will become better known to new generations posthumously - so often the way with art, music and literature. But those of us who knew the man, we mourn the passing of a master painter, one rich in vocabulary, a wicked sense of humour, and a passion for what makes New Zealand so distinct as only a painter might portray.

"His work is known for its championing of environmentalism but also a rich Anglican-centred and dynamic Christian faith which is far less acknowledged but clearly imbues his work . . .."

Barbara Speedy, director of Picton's Diversion Gallery, recalled him being described as a kaumatua of the art world.

"It probably was the best word to describe his presence in both the art and environmental world."

His last works included two colour pencil works of Kaipupu Pt in Picton, which has been established as a mainland island sanctuary for birds and wildlife, she says. Binney insisted on doing the studies for these, despite health woes, and sent them to help raise funds for the sanctuary.

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