Exhibition review: Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface

A celebratory survey spanning 60 years of a provocative and feminist artist.

Subversive is the first word that comes to mind and rebellious shortly after that. A child of the 50s and 60s, Vivienne Binns’ work bears the embodied influence from the Australian seat of the civil rights movement and the ever-rising voices of second wave feminism.

On and through the Surface, a retrospective of the works of Binns is currently on show at MCA Australia. Curated by Anneke Jaspers and Hannah Mathews, the exhibition spans 60 years of the artist’s work and is inclusive of some of the work by other artists, who produced their work as part of Binn’s various community-based projects.

On and through the Surface begins with film of Binns in her Canberra home studio, speaking about her process—how she makes the various implements courtesy of Bunnings or found things that she uses to create her works. She puts out how having the studio at the rear of her house is necessary, as she works slowly, ‘like a drip, dripping onto stone.’ On the facing wall is the Painting without title 2022, 2019-ongoing; the whole first space establishes Binns’ work as one in process: a living, growing, practice.

Moving clockwise through the rooms, the pieces are arranged roughly chronologically in its telling of Binns’ artistic journey. It begins with early sketches and drawings of disassembled anatomies with exaggerated genitals. The first room features the piece that Binns herself marks as the moment that everything slipped into place, Vag Dens, 1967 – a large psychedelic vagina with teeth. Vag Dens and Phallic monument were among the original pieces that caused the respected art critics of the time to swoon and clutch their breasts with indignation after her watermark show at Watters Gallery in 1967.

Binns has simply never ascribed to the pomp and elitism that so often presides over fine arts institutions; it didn’t make sense to her that art is something performed by only privileged people. As she still says: ‘Art belongs to everybody, it’s just part of what we as human beings do.’ 

A significant part of Binns’ oeuvre is her practice as a mentor, community organiser, art teacher and co-creator. The exhibition displays cabinets filled with books, photographs, letters, and postcards that have been made or used as inspiration, whilst the walls are adorned with the posters that Binns and others screen-printed to advertise the art classes and community groups that she facilitated all around NSW – the posters themselves form part of artistic product, printed on paper or enamel on metal.

What Binns was so heavily criticised for throughout her career aside from her staunchly feminist stance, garish colour schemes and irreverence towards the prudishness of the respectable class, was her enthusiasm for what was labelled amateur and the elevation of everyday artforms.

This commitment is made explicit in In memory of unknown artists, one of Binns’ most extensive bodies of work that pays attention to the ‘unknown artists’, makers of lino, upholstery fabrics and other domestic objects and whose designers’ names history does not remember.

On and through the Surface is very personal and lacking in pretension. There is no artistic ‘clique’ in these rooms. The curation of this show allows Binns’ work to be exactly what it is – grounded and raw. The artist’s intentions, opinions, and explorations intellectual and material are interdependent and expressed clearly in these galleries. Using her practice, she visually asks questions about what it means to be a woman in the world at this time, what role do we take, and how do we choose to interact with things and with each other. 

Carefully chosen, the pieces included draw a fine but clear story arc that begins in art school and finishes with an artist who has moved through the existential only to arrive at a place of play and patience with the very material from which her career was built.

Read: Exhibition review: Colin Lanceley Earthly Delights, NAS

At large the exhibition reads like the evolution of woman, artist and being here on Country. It feels local and heavily embedded across a specific time and place. There’s something about a retrospective of an artist like Binns being treated with care and reverence in places like MCA and Monash University of Art that serves to validate the courage and vision of such a woman.

Her lineage is not just the physical works presented in these beautiful galleries, but more importantly the work of practising artists and community workers that she encouraged and deemed worthy.

Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
Free entry

Vivienne Binns: On and through the Surface will be on display until 25 September 2022

Christina is a freelance writer and multidisciplinary artist. The 2021 Program Officer for The Writing Zone and a junior editor at the Sydney Review of Books. She is the Associate Producer at WestWords and the founder of Writing Black Australia, an online platform for the amplification of Black Australian Literary Work. A graduate of the UOW Creative Writing Program, her area of research is in framing the African diasporic voice of contemporary Australian literature.