In the recent death of Don Binney New Zealand art has lost a major contributor to its diverse tradition of landscape painting. Binney began painting his stylized images of birds in the landscape in the early 1960s. These unique and startling images quickly established his reputation. The ‘oversized’ birds combined a personal take on hard-edged abstraction with conservationist and painterly concerns. The design and structure of his paintings emphasised the shape and contour of the bird while integrating it with similar forms in the landscape. A dynamic tension was established between these elements which underlined a complex interaction between stasis and implied movement, latency and potential. The style worked with and against the energy it both created and contained.
Hard edges did not preclude emotional and spiritual depth however – the cry of the tui from McCahon’s Northland Panels is given a startlingly physical presence in Tui over Te Henga 1964 or Colonial garden bird 1965.
While a central place is now occupied by the bird images in Binney’s oeuvre, his practice also embraced the landscape itself and its particular New Zealand characteristics. He integrated these with political concerns relating to settlement and ownership in the decade of the 1980s. The wider Pacific context also appeared in paintings such as Pacific frigate bird I 1968 in a treatment akin to that in Rita Angus’s Rutu 1951 and was referenced again in works in the 1990s. Stylistically his work maintained a continuum with nineteenth century topographical artists John Kinder and Alfred Sharpe and earlier twentieth century artists such as Christopher Perkins. Binney was a contemporary of Rita Angus, Bill Sutton, Michael Smither, Robin White and Michael Illingworth. He, like them, combined in his work a passionate engagement with the landscape with exploration of its formal and symbolic capacity.
Te Papa’s collection of Don Binney’s work will help to inform future generations of the important position this artist holds in the crucial period when international modernism was becoming integrated into the fabric of New Zealand’s visual and artistic heritage.
The art team and the staff at Te Papa would like to extend our deepest sympathy and aroha to Don’s family and friends in this time of loss and sadness for the New Zealand art community.
-Tony Mackle, Collection Manager Works of Art on Paper