July 27, 2022

Art

‘Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface’ at the MCA

By Kathleen Linn
Image of artwork by Vivienne Binns, Captain Cook in spinifex green (detail), 2002, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 62.6 x 100.5 cm, private collection, Canberra. © Vivienne Binns. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Vivienne Binns, Captain Cook in spinifex green (detail), 2002, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 62.6 x 100.5 cm, private collection, Canberra. © Vivienne Binns. Photo: Zan Wimberley

The major survey of work by the pioneering feminist artist reveals her preoccupations with the body and abstraction

Much has already been written about Vivienne Binns’ fabled Watters Gallery exhibition of 1967. Just a few years out of art school, Binns exhibited pioneering artworks that have become some of the earliest examples of feminist art anywhere in the world, alongside breakthrough abstract paintings that reimagined the figure in space and the picture plane in new and exciting ways. The exhibition clashed with the prevailing conservative ideals of Menzies-era Australia, and subjected Binns to many negative reviews as she introduced audiences to works such as Vag dens (1967) and Phallic Monument (1966). These dual portraits of female and male genitalia are rendered in bright, jarring colours, while Phallic Monument is painted on an irregular-shaped piece of board. The painting style itself, as much as the subject matter, seemed to offend critics at the time. But these important psychosexual images pre-date the “central core” imagery of seminal feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro.

These early works feature near the entrance of a new exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), where they introduce two primary and enduring concerns within Binns’ oeuvre: the body and abstraction. On and through the Surface forms the first major institutional survey exhibition of Binns’ practice and includes more than 100 works spanning six decades. The exhibition is co-curated by Anneke Jaspers, senior curator at MCA, and Hannah Mathews, senior curator at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA). The first iteration of the exhibition was shown at MUMA in February this year. 

I ask Jaspers about the timeliness of a survey exhibition dedicated to Vivienne Binns, and she responds: “Viv’s generation is a demographic which has been frequently overlooked, particularly because they began practising at a time when feminist discourse was just emerging in the culture at large.”

It is disheartening to think that artists such as Binns are often not afforded the honour of a survey exhibition until late in their careers, if ever. Take for example Louise Bourgeois, who was 70 when she received her retrospective at MoMA in New York, in 1982. The long wait for recognition for these women comes even though they have always been visible and exhibiting their work; however, it has not been until relatively recently that institutions have started catching up with their achievements and the art historical canon has begun to be revised.

Binns’ practice is both varied and immense, spanning seemingly divergent approaches and mediums, and this becomes apparent as you walk into the gallery spaces of the MCA. A central, pale blue “spine” leads you down into the exhibition. Metal and plyboard structures hold archival material, including photographs, posters, objects and magazines detailing the period during the 1970s and early ’80s when Binns worked in collaborative and community practice. During this time, she made the important Mothers’ Memories, Others’ Memories (1979–81) with participants who created enamelled postcards, often using images drawn from family photo albums. This workshop was held at the University of New South Wales and at Blacktown Arts Centre, where Binns worked as an artist-in-community.

Binns has often prioritised working in less traditional spaces and ways during her career. For the project Full Flight (1981–83), she travelled in a caravan for two and a half years establishing mobile art workshops in rural communities. The American feminist art historian Lucy Lippard even joined her for a weekend at Lake Cargelligo. In her diverse practice, Binns has “always had one eye on the canon and another on maintaining a critical distance from how the canon and the establishment operates”, according to Jaspers.

In the early 1980s Binns made a return to painting, where she has been working with innovation and careful consideration ever since. Her later paintings take up the three largest rooms in the MCA exhibition.

It is a particularly cold day when I talk to Binns via Zoom. She is wearing a brightly pattered jumper that looks like it could be one of her paintings, and she tells me that she did paint a section of this jumper in her work My Favourite Jumper (1997). This humorous anecdote reveals the breadth of her inspirations, and her interest in breaking down the hierarchies between high and low in art.

In her later style, Binns layers and manipulates paint in a complex way using modified combs, squeegees and brushes to make uniformly raised and flat areas, moving the paint in contrasting directions across her canvas. This creates a highly textured, patterning effect, something she refers to as “raking” the paint. Consider, for example, Captain Cook in spinifex green (2002), in which Binns probes Cook’s colonial expeditions and her own travels in outback Western Australia. Cook’s ship is delicately rendered in miniature several times in the composition; it sits against a mass of swirling green-blue raked paint. Much of Binns’ work from the 1990s and early 2000s interrogates colonisation and ownership in Australia through the recurring image of the shoreline, a politically and culturally contested site.

Binns returns again and again in her work to a pared-back grid – not a modernist grid, she tells me, but one derived more from a repeating of the edges across the canvas, and influenced by Tapa cloth from the Pacific, among other influences. In Fig and tiles (2019), a work from her broader series “painting in memory of the unknown artist” (1995–present), Binns responds to tiles she encountered at the Islamic palace Alhambra in Spain and the shadows cast by the branches of a fig tree from her garden in Canberra. The branches are the stark white of unpainted canvas sitting against the complexity of the layered painted grid of the tiles, the work bringing abstraction and figuration together.

During our conversation, Binns emphasises her belief that “painting doesn’t stop at the surface but leads the mind beyond the surface into other issues”. In Topographica (2014), for example, there is an overall image of a dry creek bed, painted from a photograph taken by Binns in Alice Springs in the 1980s. Into the shadows of the creek bed, Binns has painted small vignettes. These images are taken from her vast personal archive of photographs, news clippings and art historical images. They draw the viewer’s mind to political events, alongside personal relationships and memories, while also triggering the ever-present undertow of our subconscious mind and the varied cognitive associations an image may generate.

Topographica, along with Somebody’s everyday, somewhere, sometime (2009) and Minding clouds (2016) form a trilogy of large-scale, highly detailed paintings. Binns has been working on them since 2009, and they powerfully close out the exhibition.

The vast and divergent creative practice that Binns has maintained over nearly six decades against Australia’s changing political and cultural backdrop is truly remarkable. What lingers in my mind long after I leave the MCA is Binns’ enduring fascination with abstraction and how it meets figuration, her exceptional technical ability as a painter, and her unceasing effort to foreground a female perspective and a feminist politics.

 

Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney until September 25.

Kathleen Linn

Kathleen Linn is an art writer and curator who lives on Gadigal land/Sydney.

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