Ian Scott (1945–2013)

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Thursday 11 July 2013
Ron Brownson

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The news of Ian Scott’s passing came as a shock as I was unaware that he had been unwell for some years. I am grateful to have spoken with Ian about an acquisition that I made last year. I had long known that the Australasian impresario Harry M Miller had acquired Ian’s most ambitious portrait when it was first exhibited in 1969. The painting has not been seen publicly since then. Don Binney at Te Henga, 1969 is the sort of portrait that once seen is not forgotten.

In 2012, because of his book on New Zealand portraits, I asked Richard Wolfe for notes on his response to Ian Scott’s painting:

‘In 1968 Gordon H. Brown… observed that the painted portrait had fallen into “general disrepute”. The pursuit of a likeness was no longer considered desirable, and had been superseded by photography. But a local revival of portraiture was already underway, stimulated by the previous year’s Face to Face exhibition at Auckland’s New Vision Gallery.

Among the artworks shown was Colin McCahon’s uncompromising Portrait of Gordon H. Brown, which hinted at new possibilities for the genre. Perhaps for the very reason that it was unfashionable, portraiture was now taken up by a new generation of young artists, some of whom were taught by McCahon at the Elam School of Fine Arts. 

In the late 1960s Ian Scott began painting a series of portraits of fellow artists, including Colin McCahon, Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey and, in 1969, Don Binney. As well as being graduates of Elam, Scott and Binney were both represented in Auckland by the Barry Lett Gallery, and shared an interest in the west coast. Scott painted Binney at Te Henga, against the same rugged coastline seen in the latter’s Sun shall not burn Thee by day nor moon by night (1966) in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery. Binney is placed to one side of the vista, inviting the viewer into a landscape he made his own, and which includes his studio in the middle distance. 

Don Binney at Te Henga is an affectionate homage to a fellow practitioner. Scott has deferred to elements of his subject’s distinctive style, although the swarm of cotton-wool clouds is decidedly unBinney-like. This portrait is a unique record, providing both an introduction and context for the work of one of New Zealand’s best-known and most recognisable artists. It is also the work of another major artist who, along with such contemporaries as Robin White and Michael Smither, was responsible for the revival of interest in the painted portrait in New Zealand.’ 

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Ian Scott grew up in Henderson and spent many weekends during his youth biking to Te Henga/Bethells Beach. He explored the beach, islands and hinterland. Scott was impressed that Don Binney, who was five years older, also spent time at Te Henga while attending art school. Interestingly, Ian had been painting Te Henga since 1960, some years before Don began working there.

Ian was 24 years old when he painted Don at Te Henga. It was his most ambitious portrait to date in its scale and intention. Earlier, he had made portraits of Colin McCahon, Peter McLeavey, Gordon Walters and Milan Mrkusich. These were all based on photographs not taken by the painter.

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Don Binney at Te Henga was purposely intended to be New Zealand’s largest portrait; it is twice life-size. Scott was inspired by the scale of the portrait heads in the recent paintings of American Pop artists James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselman, Roy Lichtenstein and Alex Katz.

More than other local artists, Scott was looking to the relevance of American Pop art here while tying it to his response to Rita Angus’s realism. He is attempting to update the approach that Angus took in her Portrait of Betty Curnow of 27 years earlier where the interests of both the subject and the artist are combined into one image. By the time Scott painted this work, Binney had been associated with paintings of Te Henga since 1963.

In 1968, there was a flurry in Auckland when the New Vision Gallery showed Face to Face, the first attempt in New Zealand to focus on contemporary portraiture. For a time it was believed that portraiture could become a revitalised genre with Geoff Thornley, Ross Ritchie, Colin McCahon, Peter Siddell, Richard Killeen and Ian Scott making portraits. Killeen and Scott looked to the much-derided suburbia and the bush covered hills that McCahon was then obsessed with. Instead of a landscape that is without sound, devoid of people and containing no evidence of history – Scott envisaged a coastal place that has a champion, and which is populated and has been lived in for some time.

By appropriating photographs and analyzing the way that Binney himself drew Te Henga, Scott used the current Pop methodology of conjoining image source and artistic styles seen in the work of James Rosenquist. Wilderness and habitation become connected. Portrait and location are contrasted in a disquieting way. At the time when this painting was painted, Scott’s cohorts at Elam – students and teachers – were confused. Were they looking at a portrait in a landscape or a landscape with a portrait?

Gordon H Brown wrote: 'Perhaps the most significant development has been the growing interest in a new kind of realism that owes no allegiance to any recent art movement but if anything is closer to the regionalists of nineteen-thirties without necessarily being so naturalistic or regional in outlook. In this respect Don Binney acts as a link rather than a manifestation of this new approach.' (From Directions in Recent New Zealand Painting: Two Views in Ten Years of New Zealand Painting in New Zealand, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1968)

Hamish Keith concurred with Gordon’s opinion and stated in the same publication: ‘There has recently been a revival of interest in an uncompromisingly realist approach to imagery. Rita Angus could perhaps be seen as a precursor to this, but it has been developed and extended since 1962 by Don Binney initially and later Michael Smither and other painters.’ 

Don Binney’s studio at Te Henga was the red barn at lower right. The colonial villa belonged to the Bethell family. The portrait was first exhibited at the Barry Lett Galleries in mid-1969, at which occasion Don Binney had a portrait of himself taken against it. Harry Miller immediately acquired the painting from the exhibition for $200.00 (the same price that the Auckland Art Gallery paid for Rita Angus’s Fog Hawkes Bay that was on display at Barry Lett Galleries at the same time).

Don Binney at Te Henga is intended to appear as if figure and landscape are both seen under extremely bright light. As if overwhelmed by the light’s intensity. The orbs of white clouds reflect the pulsing sensation that one gets from the backlight frequently encountered on Auckland’s west coast. These dots reinforce the glare expressed by the painting. Don Binney is somewhat brought back from this intensity because he is standing in quarter shadow, as if shaded by a tree. The painting is not meant to be naturalistic; it couples the bright and silvery light frequently experienced on this coastline. The fact that there are almost no shadows in the view reflects the notion that the light is illuminating the entire view at the height of an Auckland summer.

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For Ian Scott, the painting shows that ‘New Zealand is a very bright and hard edged place. It affirms that my art and Don’s vision was similar. We are getting at the pearlescent light of New Zealand’. The artist consciously wanted to conflate the influence of Pop art with regional art tradition of New Zealand. Time wise, the portrait comes at the mid-point of his realist phase. Sky Dash, 1969–70 was his next painting (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki). Ian Scott was fascinated with what was happening overseas in the 1960s, and it was this international perspective that he brings to his portrait of an esteemed regionalist artist and friend.

I was encouraged to see Ian’s enthusiasm when I informed him that his portrait Don Binney at Te Henga had been gifted by the Friends of the Gallery to the collection. He had thought that his most ambitious portrait had been lost to New Zealand.

With a vocation arching over more than four decades, Ian Scott showed it was possible to be a full-time painter. Few other local painters have been as prolific as he was, even fewer as determined to explore such diverse and, sometimes, divisive content. His commitment to his studio practice was immense and filled with focus. Series after series of paintings emerged. There is much more to be known about the art of Ian Scott.

To his partner Nan, and son Chris, the staff of the Gallery send our sincere condolences. 

CREDITS:
Ian Scott
Don Binney at Te Henga 1969
oil on hardboard
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
gift of the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2012

Ian Scott
Sky Dash 1969–70
oil on canvas Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
gift of the Artist, 2004