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September 24, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Don Binney, 1940-2012

New Zealand is a small artistic tent, so when we lose a pole it resonates through the whole structure. Two weekends ago Don Binney passed away in hospital from a heart attack at the tender age of 72. New Zealand has lost a truly gifted artist as well as man who was committed to improving and aiding the lives of New Zealanders through his art and his actions.

If you aren’t aware of the name, the images he created will surely be familiar. He has been referred to as the “bird man” but this is a reductive way to view the volume of work of a man who brought a unique and charming approach to the study of the animals, people and landscapes peculiar to this bunch of little islands. Binney was a passionate ornithologist and environmentalist, but his commitment to people and the landscapes which they lived in and affected is also evident both in his body of work and his actions.

The work which sums up his dual approach for me is a poster which Binney created for Conservation Day in 1979, a piece which elegantly renders several different native birds in profile. But these birds are also invested with a sense of personality, a feeling that they all have something to say and to contribute. This poster works to raise awareness of the plight of native birds in Aotearoa but it also emphasises their beauty and their independence. The work has a human side too, while the image is of birds its context dictates that in order for this unique natural beauty to be preserved humans must step in in an active capacity. The text underneath, “save us a place to live” is framed as an address from the birds to humanity, but it also serves as an appeal from Binney. If we don’t preserve the natural beauty and diversity which we currently enjoy, New Zealand will be no place to live.

While Binney produced some far more carefully constructed and wonderfully painted works, this one stands out to me as it both encapsulates his true genius at capturing form in pigment and his love for the world in which he lived. The piece accompanying this review—’Ahu Ahu Southward, Karekare Beach’—also shows how he used playful lines and simple composition to communicate to his audience the beauty and lyricism of the natural world.

Binney consistently pushed the envelope with his approach to painting, and the images that he leaves behind as a legacy are both stunningly beautiful and a tribute to the country and people whom Binney lived alongside and memorialised on canvas. We are a small country and when we lose one bright spark it can suddenly appear quite dark. Don Binney’s ability and the quality of his intent no longer rest in his frame, but they endure in the works which have outlasted him.

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