Vivienne Binns has worked primarily as a painter, but has also continually worked across media and contexts. She worked almost exclusively with enamelling for a period from the late 1960s to mid 1970s, and extensively in the area of community arts throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. She was a founding member of the Sydney Women's Art Movement and is probably best known for early work with strong feminist themes.
Vivienne Binns, painter, enameller and community artist, was born at Wyong, New South Wales, in 1940. The youngest of the five children of Joyce and Norman, Binns grew up in Sydney, living in Willoughby then Wollstonecraft. She attended North Sydney Girls’ High School, then studied at The National Art School in Sydney between 1958 and 1962. Teachers of some influence were Dorothy Thornhill, John Olsen, Godfrey Miller and John Passmore.
In 1962 Binns saw and was very impressed by the 'Subterranean Imitation Realists’ exhibition at Rudy Komon Gallery. She was particularly attracted to the intellect and ideas of Mike Brown. After graduating she spent about a year working as a telephonist, spent several months in Melbourne in late 1963, then after a short trip to Tasmania, returned to Sydney in early 1964 to begin a period of serious artistic exploration and development. After attending a viewing of Mike Brown’s work at his home, the two developed a close personal relationship. He became very important in terms of her development of ideas about art, creativity and life. Both believed that art could be found in unexpected places, outside the high art arena.
Around this time Binns made the positive decision to stay in Australia in order to see what could be achieved using only that which Australian culture had to offer. This decision was in opposition to what she perceived as the general feeling that it was almost impossible to be an artist of any real significance in Australia without travelling overseas.
After working intensely with the automatic drawing process as used by the Dada and Surrealist artists, drawing freely and without any conscious design, Binns had a major breakthrough in which imagery relating to female and male sexuality began to emerge. She began to paint the images, rather tentatively at first, the imagery disguised or suggested, until achieving a further development with Suggon , a geometric, abstracted vagina, with a central pulsating mesh. The process culminated in a pair of colourful, playful and witty depictions of the male and female sex organs, Phallic Monument (1966) and Vag Dens (1967).
These works were exhibited at her first solo exhibition, at Watters Gallery, Sydney, in February 1967. The exhibition of paintings and constructions attracted a great deal of criticism, both for the sexual imagery of some of the works and the 'unfinished’, rough aesthetic of most.
Immediately after the exhibition Binns abandoned painting and began working as an enameller. For some years she ran enamelling classes in various schools and community settings, as well as working with architects on a number of large-scale commissions, including a series of decorative enamel plaques for Cremorne Synagogue and the Lakeside Motel, Canberra, an enamel wall motif at 380 Oxley Street, Crows Nest, and a copper wall at 167 Clarence Street, Sydney. In December 1972 her Funky Ashtrays exhibition at Watters Gallery included large, extravagantly shaped and coloured enamelled metal ashtrays.
During the early 1970s she also produced a number of ephemeral, collaborative cross-disciplinary works including WOOM , an environmental lightshow created in collaboration with Roger Foley (working as Ellis D. Fogg) at Watters Gallery, Sydney, in February 1971, and in October 1972 was one of a group of artists who collaborated to produce The Joe Bonomo Story – a Show of Strength , a group happening, a one-night performance also at Watters. Other artists involved were Sam Bienstock, Allan Bosanquet, Tim Burns, Aleks Danko, Imants Tillers, Alex Tzannes, Mitch Johnson and Robyn Ravlich.
Binns was one of the most important figures in the development of community arts in Australia. In 1972 she worked with Tim Burns and Mike Morris on one of the earliest community arts projects, The Artsmobile , and during 1973 to 1976 she worked two days per week as a field officer for the Community Arts Program of the newly established Australia Council.
During 1979 to 1981 Binns worked on a groundbreaking community arts project, Mothers’ Memories, Others’ Memories, first at the University of New South Wales and then suburban Blacktown. During 1981 to 1983 she co-ordinated Full Flight – Views of life in the Central Westernregion of NSW through the creative expression of those who live there , Central Western Arts Project, living for two years in a caravan, working in communities from Lithgow in the east to Lake Cargelligo in the far west of central New South Wales.
Binns was one of the founding members of the Sydney Women’s Art Movement, formed in 1974, and the 1976 collaborative exhibition she co-ordinated, 'Experiments in Vitreous Enamel, Portraits of Women’ , has been described as the first truly feminist collaborative exhibition in Australia (Burke 1976, p26).
From December 1977 to March 1978, a Visual Arts Board travel grant enabled Binns to travel to England and the USA. Most of the period was spent in New York, where she met members of the Heresies feminist collective, including May Stevens, Miriam Schapiro and Harmony Hammond. She also visited Lucy Lippard in England.
In 1983 Binns was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for Services to Art and Craft and in 1985 the Ros Bower Memorial Award for visionary contribution to community arts.
She began painting again in 1984, returning to the studio after almost eighteen years, although she continued to be involved in various community arts projects. For the next few years, while working in a range of styles, formats and media, Binns primarily produced a great number of small paintings, both abstract and figurative. Some were extremely small, with dimensions of only four or five centimetres, painted on fragments of wood or earlier paintings. A 1989 exhibition at Watters Gallery included seventy-two small paintings/constructions by Binns, as well as Tower of Babe l, a collaborative installation consisting of fifty-one boxes, nineteen of which were made by Binns and the rest by artist friends and colleagues, members of her family, and participants from community arts projects.
During the second half of the 1980s she taught painting and drawing at Sydney University Art Workshop, The Tin Sheds, and in 1994 she taught painting and drawing at Charles Sturt University (Albury) before moving to Canberra to take up a lecturing position at the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University (ANU), where she taught foundation, painting, sculpture and theory.
In the late 1980s, having worked up until that point as an artist concerned with Australian life and culture, Binns became interested in exploring the cultural exchange between Australia and its nearest neighbours in the Asia Pacific region. In 1987 she travelled to Perth as a NAVA board member and while there attended ARX ’87 (Artists Regional Exchange) at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. In 1990 she was awarded one of six Australian Artists Creative Fellowships. This provided $50,000 per annum for three years, allowing her to travel and pursue her research into the cultural seepage between Australia and the Pacific region. The following year, 1991, she undertook a residency at the Australia Council studio in Tokyo. She later attended three South Pacific Festivals of the Arts – in Raratonga (1992), Western Samoa (1996) and Noumea (2000).
As a result of this exploration, the 1990s saw Binns produce an important body of work incorporating imagery relating to Captain James Cook and the artists who travelled with him, and the patterns of tapa cloth – the bark cloth traditionally made throughout the Pacific region.
Other strands of interest and exploration often ran alongside this research. In 1990 she exhibited a body of work entitled Drawings of God . Many of these were tiny drawings of God’s beard (given a playful, feminist treatment) based upon detail taken from a range of art historical sources, and in the same year she travelled to Central Australia and undertook a course with Pitjantjara women to learn of their Creation stories, art and culture. In 1995 Binns produced the first of an extensive series entitled InMemory of the Unknown Artist, which acknowledged the artistic creativity of people not generally considered to be artists – designers of fabric, linoleum, carpet and bathroom tiles, housewives and traditional craftspeople, as well as 'weekend’ painters and street artists.
In 2002 a trip to the Kimberleys in the Northern Territory resulted in complex works that included motifs deriving from the landscape she had travelled through, often combined with Cook-related imagery and patterned surfaces. The following year she invited artists Geoff Newton and Derek O’Connor to collaborate on a series of split canvases, each of which was painted by two artists. These works came about as a result of Binns’ attempt to work in two quite different modes on a single split canvas herself.
A survey exhibition of Binns’ work, curated by Merryn Gates, was staged in 2006 by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, in partnership with the University of Tasmania. The exhibition toured to regional galleries in New South Wales and Victoria and the Drill Hall at the ANU. Following this show, Binns’ work was selected for inclusion in several major exhibitions: John Stringer’s MCA survey exhibition 'Cross Currents’ (2007); and the invitational prizes at the National Gallery of Victoria, 'The John McCaughey Memorial Prize’ (2008) and 'Clemenger Contemporary Art Award’ (2009).
During the 1990s and 2000s, Binns exhibited regularly at Sutton Gallery in Melbourne, Bellas Milani in Brisbane and the Helen Maxwell Gallery in Canberra. While painting is now her preferred medium, Binns work continues to range across styles, scale and themes.