chatting with artist vivienne binns about her life and the importance of feminist art
As the Pop to Popism exhibition at the Gallery of NSW comes to a close, we meet one of the great Australian contributing artists and discover the value in psychedelic smut.
Vag Dens by Vivienne Binns 1967
In her first exhibition after graduating from art school in 1967, Vivienne Binns scandalized the Australian art scene. The centrepiece of her show at Watters Gallery consisted of two psychedelic studies of human genitals.
Vag Dens (a lurid rainbow vagina with vicious teeth, and a hole in its centre that seemingly leads to another world) and Phallic Monument (a pair of outsized testicles with an erect penis perched atop them, spouting native flowers) were so graphic, and so unexpected from a woman of that time that they caused one critic to describe the show as "pure, obscene horror". Another critic, Rodney Milgate, perhaps sensing that these works were the early rumbles in what would soon become an earthquake, suggested, "have a double brandy, grit your teeth and see it".
At that time the Art Gallery of New South Wales was presented with a chance to acquire Binns' work. They declined. Now, for the first time, at the Pop to Popism exhibition, you can see Binns' seminal paintings hanging at the gallery, a fact that the artist finds endlessly amusing.
Although it wasn't her intention at the time, Binns' works were at the forefront of feminist art. By the 1970s, Binns was fully embedded within the feminist movement. She went on to have a long and successful career as an artist and teacher working in enamel and community art - it would be years before she'd pick up a paintbrush again.
We sat down with Vivienne and asked her to share her thoughts on life, work and that particular moment of profound artistic upheaval.
On art school in the late fifties…
"Going to art school puts you in touch with all sorts of people, from eccentric bohemians, to intensely serious people. People who think they're figuring out all sorts of things about the meaning of life, how the world works, and humanity. That's what I was interested in: the secrets of humanity.
When I was a student, men were still saying to women, 'What do you want to paint for when you can create with your body?' with the subtext being 'get out of our field'."
On the process that generated those early works…
"I'd done my course at the National Gallery. I'd spent a year working in the telephone exchange saving money so I could run away from home. I went to Melbourne for about four months and worked as a scooter delivery girl, which was quite dangerous because your wheels could get stuck in the tram tracks. Then I went down to Tasmania. And by the time I'd done all that, I had this compulsion to come back to Sydney and work out this business of me as an artist.
I just focused on doing things; on making work and reading and so on. I cut myself off - people would organize social weekends, they'd go to the movies and to parties and blah-di-blah-di-blah-di-blah. Well, I just didn't do any of that stuff. I was only interested in friends who were on this wavelength. I knew I had to cut myself off from things, so I could focus. I was also working out what it meant to be a young adult, and my sexuality... It was an intense searching. It was very exhausting and almost sent me nuts. But through those paintings, I reached a point of resolution for that time."
On what she'd aimed to achieve…
"I knew that I was pushing boundaries, and I wanted to have an impact. As an artist of the time you wanted to make something strong, active and full of colour. The paintings were out-there, and there was this understanding that works had to have a gesture and presence. There was also a sense that we wanted the paintings to jump off the wall and smack people in the face."
On the best form of birth control…
"At some time or other during that period I was on the pill. And it was a pretty horrible pill. It was far too strong and it made me feel awful. Then I took up the lesbian life, and got to go off it. That was the best contraception I ever came across."
On what came next…
"Those paintings were my first major breakthrough into deeper understanding. They took me beyond anything I'd ever learnt in my training or from my family. That first exhibition shocked some of my family very deeply. It took me to a place where they didn't know who I was. But it was real for me.
Then the next big breakthrough was feminism. Thinking about how there's a whole landscape here that's unexplored. That we don't know about. What it really means to be a woman who is independent and not always in the shadow of, or compared to, a man? We're still trying to work out a lot of stuff."
On what it feels like to be at the beginnings of a movement…
"It's like a wave. There are similar things happening around you, but you don't realize you're part of it while you're in it. I didn't know what I was doing, I just had these compulsions. I didn't immediately realise there was a movement around me."
Text i-D Team