Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia's "Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface" expands on the exhibition hosted by the Monash University Museum of Art from February to April this year. With the addition of new archival material, including documentation, participant callouts, posters, and other ephemera relating to Binns's community-based works, the MCA presents a multi-faceted and timely survey of one of Australia's most important living artists.

Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface is titled after a phrase that Binns often used when discussing her works with  Anneke Jaspers (senior curator, collection, MCA) and Hannah Matthews (senior curator, MUMA) as they were carrying out research into her archive. The first works that audiences encounter in the space on the third floor of the MCA immediately call us into this archive as an organic, vital entity, and into the live environment of the artist’s studio. The first painting shown, Painting without title 2022, 2019–ongoing, is a work in progress, likely to be worked on again once it is returned to Binns after the exhibition. Opposite this piece is a video of Binns in the studio, explaining and working with her “aids to manufacture.” The sense convincingly given by these opening movements is that Binns is an artist still acting “on and through the Surface,” whose work has long been, and is still, operating upon and beyond the canvas, and within and beyond the gallery. 

The scope of the show is broad, and its placement in the space organised by both chronological and thematic logics which show up surprising intersections, inflections, and ongoing developments in Binns’s work over the course of six decades. Early paintings including the lauded Vag Dens, Phallic Monument, and Suggon, all first shown at Watters Gallery in 1967, are shown alongside a more conventional nude from Binns’s days as a student at East Sydney Technical College. In front of these works, I recalled Anne Marsh’s recent Doing Feminism: Women’s Art and Feminist Criticism in Australia, in which Marsh situates these early works within the context of Binns’s peers, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the pop avant-garde movement pushed forward by Sydney artists including the Annandale Imitation Realists at the time. The popular mischaracterisation of these works as primarily or solely “feminist” art (though much of Binns’s output is about and with women, and does feminist work) is gently and convincingly pushed against though the very structure of the exhibition. As we move through the space, we’re invited to consider the multiplicities of Binns’s practices, and her contributions to a range of social, artistic, and political discourses of her time – including feminism, but also including community engagement, environmentalist thought, and the post-colonial reappraisal of Australia’s cultural history. 

A collection of material shown primarily in vitrines functions as a sort of “spine” to the exhibition, connecting Binns’s practice as a painter to her work in other media – particularly in enamel – as well as to her collaborative projects and her work with communities. Her work as a founder of the Sydney chapter of the Women’s Art Movement, in 1974, is documented, and particular attention is paid to ephemera and photographic materials relating to Mothers’ memories others’ memories, 1979–81.This work involved a collaboration with women in Blacktown and at the University of New South Wales to document women’s perspectives and experiences, at a time when these were still all but invisible in public life. Similar material from the Full Flight program of community-based art projects, which took place across regional New South Wales in 1982–83, is presented along the central corridor of the show, from which rooms focussing on painting through the decades emerge.

Emphasising these projects as central to Binns’s practice, rather than as supplements to the heroic “core” activity of painting is a thoughtful and essential framing of the artist’s oeuvre. The difficulties of presenting historical community engagement projects in a gallery or museum context are significant: How to communicate a sense of their liveliness, their situation in the world, and the contributions of their many participants? In some sense, the logic of the survey or retrospective exhibition may be at odds with the logic and the politics of these projects: the survey essentially focussed on the individual, and on enshrining a legacy, and the community engagement work on a dispersed mode of creation beyond the gallery walls, often troubling in some way our conventions about the sorts of cultural production which are deserving of legacies themselves. Nevertheless, the MCA’s presentation is thoroughly and thoughtfully done, and the emphasis on these projects is completely appropriate to the task of describing Binns’s practice as a whole.

Binns’s paintings are presented as physical and conceptual delights, exploring the use of archival material to reappraise colonial and other “national” histories, as well as regional histories situating Australia within the Pacific. More recent works, where Binns’s attentiveness to the almost sculptural possibilities of acrylic paint, occupy the two biggest rooms of the exhibition. The show is structured such that, after moving through these rooms, one might emerge back out at the video of Binns in her studio – still working, still painting. Rich, thorough, and swarming with multiplicities, Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface shows the artist at her most vital: expansive, and indeed – wonderfully – yet expanding.

Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface
15 July – 25 September 2022
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

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