Vivienne Binns including collaborations with Derek O'Connor

Geoff Newton: shit
Canberra Contemporary Art Space
15 November – 20 December 2003

At first this show might appear confusing. There is a substantial group of works (paintings, drawings, a ‘sculpture’) by the maverick artist Vivienne Binns; then a number of paintings created collaboratively by Binns with Derek O’Connor and Geoff Newton. What’s going on? Binns explains things in a statement in the catalogue. Working backwards: the collaborations were made by one artist making ‘half’ a painting, and another responding. Binns had been impressed by the free styles of O’Connor and Newton and asked them to be involved in the project. But the pivotal moment, as it were, lay with the creation of Binns’ painting Maelstrom (2002), where she divided the surface roughly in half, with, as she states ‘one side the more pre-conceived, patterned surface and the other a freer, organic passage, which would also be the result of the swing of the arm, an immediate interaction between myself and the canvas’.

As Binns continues in her statement (and made clear at the exhibition floortalk), this painting became a ‘battle royal’, where ‘much of the conflict occurred along the division’. It was an attempt to reconcile two distinct formal aspects of her practice: the open process of making drawings versus the controlled geometric patterning of certain of her paintings.

The tension at the faultline, then, is in a way outsourced in this project: one of the collaborators begins, the other responds, in different combinations. Not as easy as it sounds, nor an exercise in style mashing as such. Rather the response becomes a considered reciprocal gesture, with a fair amount of room for intuition. How are we to make out a connection between the two halves of Binns / O’Connor’s Barbarella? Here is a seething abstract ‘landscape’ matched by a strange orifice / eye. Or Binns / Newton’s Termound and drumkit where a vacant blob / termite mound surrounded by combed ridges of paint abuts a picture of cymbals on stands with liquid purple shadows? The connections exist, and are manifest at a range of different levels: formal, pictorial and conceptual relations all coming into play.

The collaborations represent a ‘bumping’ between generations (Binns studied in the early 1960s, O’Connor in the 1980s, Newton graduated in 2000), but the significance of this is less important than the experimental process of creating the works. ‘Process and relationship’ as Binns states in the catalogue ‘are the central tenets of my practice rather than medium, style and materiality’.

Indeed process is central to the exhibition. The process of ideas germinating over time, as well as an approach to art making that explores the activity of making a painting (in particular): the way the paint works, the way an idea might be suggested by swathes of acrylic, sketchy lines of paint, or areas of ridged, speckled, dotted patterning. The process of collaboration itself is paramount, too. Working out how to work together effectively and allowing that process to evolve.

Binns’ significance during the feisty 1960s and 1970s art-and-community realm cannot be underestimated. The inclusion in the exhibition of ballpoint and ink drawings from the 1960s is a revelation: the hybrid body, orifice, flower, machine, text works revealing a formative and candid aspect of Binns’ practice. Likewise, the highly significant Funky enamel ashtray, 1971, unfurls floridly on its plinth as a kind of cunt-flower, the enamelled copper all drippy and shiny.

And there are a whole bunch of little paintings, sketches perhaps, some on bits of rough plywood, the kind of things that are produced intuitively, as ideas, the formations of concepts that might fruit further down the track. This is where an aspect of the exhibition title resonates—these things that might be considered as ‘shit’—because there is barely anything scatological about the show. The artists’ job might be considered a ‘shitty’ one: hard work. And, as Binns states ‘…the crude and messy places have been sources of creative energy and meaning, and a sort of fundamental integrity or truth, for me in work (and life, actually)’.