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During a career spanning more than half a century, Vivienne Binns – a pioneer of feminist and community art in Australia – has never stopped growing. By Helen Hughes.

Artist Vivienne Binns

Vivienne Binns in the studio.
Vivienne Binns in the studio.
Credit: Zan Wimberley

Vivienne Binns is 81. At odds with her weighty cultural status, she cuts a small figure, with short white hair, glasses and a new hearing aid. But she still holds court, easily dominating a multihour conversation with academics, curators and squirming children.

Binns turned up to the opening of her major retrospective at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) last weekend in sneakers and a plain grey shirt. Without a microphone, she shouted commentary and praise at the various dignitaries assembled to launch the exhibition. This is all in keeping with the utterly unpretentious and anti-elitist attitude that has underwritten her practice as an artist for the past six decades.

Binns’s career is often mythologised as beginning with her provocative Watters Gallery show in 1967, which – with its multicoloured flowering penises, vagina dentatas and throbbing kinetic sculptural components – announced her to the Australian art world as both a fearless protagonist and symbol of a new cultural moment.

But if we are to take seriously her philosophy of art as a deeply human and collective pursuit across cultures and times and which is often unrelated to formal training, perhaps we ought to backdate her oeuvre to her earliest childhood drawings. Binns regularly cites her older brother Peter’s intricate knitting projects – made during their childhood in postwar Sydney – as a formative influence.

While the survey at MUMA focuses on her formidable painting practice, Binns has never imposed hierarchies. She has worked across media as varied as craft, assemblage, enamelling, happenings, installation, large-scale community art projects, drawing, posters and photography. The install technicians at MUMA remarked that it felt as if they were hanging the work of several artists, not just one. As soon as she was taught “the rules” of painting during her training at the National Art School, she says, she immediately “set about blowing them up”.

Binns is a little hard of hearing, so she tends to speak at a volume that mirrors her strongly held convictions about art. In conversation, she repeats certain aphorisms of hers as if they are mantras. She frequently invokes her idea that art is everywhere all the time. She likens its omnipresence to breathing air: “We can forget about it because it’s there all the time,” she says, “until it’s not.”

In one of our recent chats, Binns described the process of working with the curators of her retrospective – MUMA’s Hannah Mathews and Anneke Jaspers of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, where an expanded version of the show will be presented later this year – as like having your memories “raked up”, good ones and bad ones. Meticulous curatorial research into the artist’s archive over two years, aided by Binns and her studio assistants, surfaced an almost impossible number of historical details. And, reflecting the vagaries of memory, not always in a sensible order.

The process was stimulating, but also exhausting. Her velocity has begun to abate in recent decades. In the 1970s and ’80s, she might have spent her year driving around New South Wales engaging thousands of people with her Artsmobile (a collaboration with artists Mike Morris and Tim Burns). Now she lives alone, her miniature schnauzer, Harriet, having died last year, and is more likely to spend an entire year working on a single, highly focused painting in her backyard Canberra studio.

This deceleration has given the slow-grinding cogs of the big institutions a chance to catch up. Already recognised with a 1983 Order of Australia for services to arts and craft, last year Binns received an Australia Council Award for Visual Arts and had a major work co-acquired by the Tate and MCA.

Leafing through the exhibition’s exquisitely designed catalogue echoes this sensation of memory being raked up. Action shots of Binns and her various collaborators – photographed knitting around a communal table, sketching en plein air, or painting a mural on the side of a community hall – rise off the pages. They interpolate colour plates of artworks that are now held in many of Australia’s most esteemed collections.

Among these figures is the American feminist and conceptual art curator and critic Lucy Lippard, whom Binns first encountered in 1975 when Lippard visited Australia to deliver her influential Power Lecture. Binns was already a key figure in the Women’s Art Movement, which was established in Australia the previous year. Lippard remained a colleague. In a black-and-white photograph from 1982 the two are captured side by side, arms assertively akimbo, in the countryside of Lake Cargelligo.

No account of Binns’s career would be complete if it were documented in slick institutional artwork shots alone. Her practice is profoundly collaborative, distributed, decentred: what Kyla McFarlane, in her essay for the catalogue, describes as a kind of “open-hearted messiness”. The relational engine of Binns’s work is conveyed at MUMA through the central corridor or “spine” of the museum, a passage that links all the other galleries and which houses a selection of key community and collaborative works. This aspect of Binns’s oeuvre will be teased out further in the larger iteration of the show at the MCA with a comprehensive display of archival documents.

The peculiarities of memory are also reflected in the exhibition’s thoughtful hang. To wander through MUMA’s galleries is to encounter thematic clusters in Binns’s practice that persist across decades and different media. Though organised in a loose chronology, beginning with work from art school and ending with one of her most recent paintings, Fig and tiles (2019), the curatorial sensibility of On and through the surface agitates against a logic of progress and refinement by emphasising cyclical and recursive moments in the artist’s career.

Thus, in the final gallery alongside the late large-scale paintings, we also find a series of pen-on-paper drawings from 1965-67, the combination of which emphasises Binns’s commitment over half a century to the grid-form as a compositional device. Likewise, creeping into the first room featuring works from the 1967 Watters Gallery show is the full suite of The scenario of children and castration works on paper from 1984, which together index Binns’s abiding interest in confronting psychosexual imagery.

For all her “open-hearted messiness”, Binns is a deeply philosophical artist with an unshakeable logic undergirding her practice. As the retrospective’s title On and through the surface makes clear, the notion of painterly surface has become the quintessential problem for Binns. She’s been turning it over and examining it, like a stone in her hand, for many decades now, each time trying to more fully grasp its elusive ontology.

For Binns, “surface” describes a threshold where contact with artists from other times and cultures feels possible. When her paintings appropriate patterns and designs from domestic items such as linoleum flooring, plastic tablecloths or woven baskets, it is never in a cool, postmodern gesture of authorial dislocation but rather an attempt to commune with the original maker, whose identity is often lost to history. She speaks of this process as trying to “sense the human body and mind that created the work … on the other side of the canvas”. Surface is the outer limits of another artist’s reach – a threshold or “membrane” that may be touched but not breached.

The term became a touchstone for Binns in the mid-1980s as she transitioned from community art towards painting proper. Her obsession can be traced to experiments in rendering the surface of water – be it a body of water as specific as an estuarine at Saratoga on the Central Coast of New South Wales (where Binns lived briefly in the early 1990s) and which she photographed extensively, or as vast as the Pacific Ocean, which became a crucial orientation point for Binns’s work and geographic self-awareness around this time. She sought to understand her place in the world as embedded in the Asia Pacific and not, as with other artists of her ilk, by “running off to Europe”.

Consider for example her Over neg 46 6 (1994) – a photograph of light refracted through rippling water, overlaid with finely painted lines echoing the water’s subtle movements. In a catalogue essay, Quentin Sprague writes that Binns’s act of “looking at and through the water simultaneously” enabled a profound “expansion of vision” that afterwards underpinned her work. From this moment, her paintings begin to accrete three-dimensional qualities that reward up-close and sustained viewing. And this despite a simultaneous transition to acrylic paint, which tends to dry flatter than oils, but whose plasticity excited Binns.

The closeness of MUMA to Monash University’s art school, where a steady stream of art students passes by and through the museum en route to the studios, feels right for Binns. She was a senior lecturer in the painting workshop at Australian National University School of Art from 2008 to 2012, where she had an enormous impact on her students, many of whom are now prominent artists: Geoff Newton, Liang Luscombe, Trevelyan Clay, Kate Smith, Debris Facility, Charlie Sofo and Dionisia Salas, to name a few. Binns’s legacy can also be sensed in a younger generation of Australia’s most interesting painters. See Helen Johnson’s treatment of canvas as a two-sided surface, or Lisa Radford’s witty anti-graffiti fabric paintings.

Meanwhile, all students of Australian art history are taught Binns’s canonical Mothers’ memories others’ memories (1979-81) – a large-scale community art project that originated in a residency at then University of New South Wales and grew exponentially via a community art project in Blacktown, Western Sydney. Mothers’ memories is a wildly multifaceted, even unruly artwork. It incorporates taped audio, slide shows, posters and an enamel postcard rack.

At its heart is the process of participants talking to mothers and simply validating their existence: as carers, creative practitioners and often keepers of familial and communal history. The central pillar of this work is women’s reflections on their lives as rubbed against the grain of their mothers’ often different recollections. The vast number of people engaged in the evolving project is testament to Binns’s unique capacity to make anyone feel like they can make art, and that it will matter.

If the peculiarities of memory are reflected in the exhibition, it’s because they are the basis of many works on display. Binns has meted out a sustained riposte to the dominant institutions of remembrance across the course of her career. One of Binns’s key contributions to art has been the way she – along with a host of feminist activists worldwide – has changed what we choose to remember and, by extension, to forget. This is best captured in her long-term project In memory of the unknown artist (1996-), the title of which plays on the genre of the Unknown Soldier monument. Instead of glorifying war, Binns’s unknown artist paintings honour domestic acts of creativity such as weaving or knitting by carefully transposing their patterns onto canvas.

My favourite work of Binns’s does all of the above and then some. Thinking of Pattie Larter (2008) is a tribute to her friend, a woefully underestimated woman artist who died more than a decade earlier, in 1996. The surface of this painting buzzes: fluorescent orange patches jostle with dynamic turquoise lines, interlocking black-and-white spirals appear to rise and recede through combed paint, while yam-like holes in different layers of acrylic scramble a sense of painterly time and space. Larter is here held in mind – made present – through energetic abstraction.

As in Thinking of Pattie Larter, Binns’s life and work is so tightly interwoven with the lives and work of other women – and some men – that it is impossible to write of one without the other. It’s in this indivisibility that we come to fully appreciate her philosophy of art – that it joins as it defines us. In her own words: “Art has always been the way I come to understand the world … not just the world but what it is to be human.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Being human".

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Helen Hughes is a senior lecturer in the faculty of art, design and architecture, Monash University.

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