For one reason or another, it’s taken me a long time to get around to Vivienne Binns: On and Through the Surface, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it’s an exhibition that reveals a lot about the way a reputation is built. Nowadays Binns (b.1940) is virtually a national living treasure, but she has achieved this by consistently swimming against the current.
With the advent of Modernism, when art repudiated its historical role as the handmaiden of wealth and power, it also laid the foundations for different kind of success. By consistently challenging the status quo, those who defiantly plant their flag in the margins will inevitably end up in the mainstream.
Binns is an iconic figure in the fields of Feminist Art and Community Art, but neither of these movements seem like much of a threat to today’s art ‘establishment’. In these gender-conscious days, feminism is treated as a mere stepping-stone on the path to universal wokeness, while Community Art will always exist in some form but it’s hard to make a case for its radical, subversive credentials.
We’ve come along way from Binns’s notorious debut exhibition, held at Watters Gallery, East Sydney, in 1967. At a time when formalist abstraction was the acceptable face of progressive art, she created a riotous, irreverent display that owed more to the spirit of Dada (and the local influence of the Annandale Imitation Realists) than to the kind of work hanging in fashionable galleries in New York.
The most celebrated artists of that era were exploring space and colour, obsessing about edges and picture planes. Binns created works that were crudely made, sexually provocative, garish, and largely unclassifiable. The two most famous pieces, Vag dens (1967) and Phallic monument (1966), are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Binns says these pictures came about largely through free association. She claims to have never heard the term ‘vagina dentata’ until alerted by a friend who saw the work in progress.
The show was a succes-de-scandale, reviewed in six different publications, and visited by the vice squad. Today these works seem like tame gags, although the psychedelic colour still hits the viewer’s eyeball with a resounding slap. Much of the initial impact came from Binns’s defiance of the unwritten rules of an era in which artists were using masking tape to ensure the utmost geometric precision. To some viewers the vagina dentata imagery was less shocking than the shapeless piece of board on which Phallic monument was painted, or the lump of moving steel mesh fixed to a perfect circle in Suggon (1967).
After the Watters show, Binns was launched, but rather than continue making paintings and sculptures she would devote the following years to performance art, and to learning enamelling techniques. This was part of an intense period of self-questioning when she felt uncertain about the very nature of art and her own role as an artist. While the performances were surreal, over-the-top affairs that involved a cast of collaborators, the enamelling was treated as a useful craft.
Unhappy about the hierarchical nature of art, whereby certain expressions were shown in art galleries and collected by museums, and others dismissed as hobbies or trades, Binns wondered if she might pick up a skill and earn a living. It might be seen an attempt to pursue a more honest or ethical life as an artist, but there was also an implicit investigation as to why ‘low’ forms of art couldn’t aspire to be high ones.
These thoughts led the artist towards her first community art venture in 1972, when she travelled in a van around NSW with Tim Burns and Mike Morris, visiting regional centres and initiating projects. From 1973-76, she would be employed by the Australia Council as a Community Arts field officer, spending much of her time on the road, meeting a variety of people.
Binns thought deeply about the work she was undertaking, trying to link a philosophy of art with her commitments to feminism and community. The result was a massive, collaborative project called Mothers’ memories others’ memories(1979-81), which has become a key work of feminist art in Australia. The piece began during a residency at the University of NSW, then migrated to Blacktown, where it was opened to the entire community. Binns described it as a “participation project which focuses on the lives of women: people collect together memories, anecdotes, family albums, letters, diaries, memorabilia, handcrafts and other examples of creative expression…”
Mothers memories’ produced a vast archive of everyday life that would have required an estimated eight or nine hours to absorb in its entirety. It appears in a highly selective form in this exhibition, the main exhibit being a postcard rack acquired by the NGA.
Few people would have seen more than a fraction of this landmark work. Dare I say, it’s a piece that’s more interesting in theory than in practice, as all those tiny details which are so important to family members can be tedious to outsiders. One of the contemporary responses to the Blacktown show said that it was “like a school project”. I know one should disapprove of such comments, but it would have been more accurate to say it’s like an impossibly large school project.
Although she has continued to work collaboratively from time to time, Mothers’ memories’ apparently exhausted Binns’s enthusiasm for collective endeavours. In the 1980s she returned to the studio, making small paintings that were exhibited at Watters Gallery and elsewhere. In the 1990s, and on into the present, she made big paintings in series, at first becoming preoccupied with the colonisation of the Pacific, then producing a series of abstract works based on the patterns found on lino, tablecloths, and similar items.
The paintings of the past 30 years are the work of an artist who has obviously enjoyed returning to her own headspace after spending decades travelling around, working with groups, and acting as an educationer – both within and outside of institutions. Yet it’s clear that Binns’s approach is cerebral rather than sensual, conceptual rather than expressive.
A work such as Surfacing in the Pacific (1993), appropriates imagery from a painting of Tahiti by William Hodges, the artist on Cook’s second voyage. It includes a reference to Tongan tapa cloth, which for Binns acts as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the modernist grid; and nods to artists, Frank Hinder, Grace Crowley and Mike Brown. One needs to read the excellent catalogue that accompanies this show to ferret out all the references in the Pacific paintings, some of them to Binns’s father who served as a soldier in the region.
When it comes to the pattern paintings, such as In memory of the unknown artist: woven plastic cloth, gift from Ruth Waller (1996), Binns is once again multiplying references and ambiguities. By turning the pattern of a tablecloth into an abstract painting she is implicitly mocking the lofty pretensions of non-objective art. She is also enjoying the idea of taking a cheap plastic fabric manufactured in South-East Asia, transforming it into a work that will hang in an art museum.
Whether Binns has produced a landscape, a history painting or an abstract work, nothing is quite what it seems. She delights in mixing genres, destroying any pretence of purity. Such built-in criticality, appropriation and irony were all features of that brief moment in art we call Postmodernism. But if the Postmodernist candle soon fizzled, it was arguably because there’s something in our minds that quickly tires of artworks that specialise in critiquing or subverting other artworks.
When the artist’s mind is working overtime but the heart is disengaged, the picture often feels flat – which may be why I often find Binns’s paintings hard to love. She has carved out a niche in Australian art history, but her paintings invite an intellectual rather than emotional engagement. She’s an artist who asks lots of questions but is always in total control.
Vivienne Binns: On and Through the Surface
Monash University Museum of Art, 5 February – 14 April, 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art, 15 July – 25 September, 2022
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September, 2022