I’d like to sit this painting alongside one by Binney from three years earlier. You may know the one I mean as it hangs just down the road in Auckland Art Gallery. It’s the one Binney painted of Te Henga (Bethells Beach) from almost the same vantage point as Scott’s portrait, with the most stylised of all his birds, a fern bird, painted in abstract bold stripes. Actually, I’d like to superimpose the two paintings for you because the right-hand third of Scott’s almost exactly corresponds to the left-hand third of Binney’s in outline and aspect. Together they make a west coast panorama. It is as if Scott has come up behind Binney while the latter was painting his fern bird overlooking Te Henga and said “Hey turn around Don, and I’ll paint you and Ihumoana Island just like that.”
Veneration and masterwork are the two words that are most apt for this painting. It is a masterwork by the 24 year old, not because it is the pinnacle of his landscapes of 1966-67 or the girlies of 1968-70; but because it sits above them like a halo. It occupies an emblematic space that contains and yet exceeds the achievements of both series. It exceeds them through its youthful veneration. Scott’s portrait of Binney is the ‘sacred’ counterpoint to the ‘profanity’ of the sexually charged girlie series; and it is the heroic counterpoint to the realism of his earlier landscapes because it carries the weight of Binney’s philosophies.
Though Scott and Binney were contemporaries, the slightly younger artist paints his ornithologist friend with reverence and a kind of tender camaraderie as practitioners of Hamish Keith’s ‘hard light’ school. Scott achieves both the grandeur (it is a large painting by local standards) and the humanity of centuries of allegorical portraits with a deft touch. Veneration shows in the scale; the almost saintly gentleness of Binney’s expression; the locale with its then endangered wetlands and bush so close to Binney’s heart; and in the painting style, which Scott seems to have borrowed momentarily from the other artist.
Previously published in Important New Zealand Paintings, 22 November 2007, Art+Object The 21st Century Auction House, Auckland, pp82-83.