Little Naked Naturists

Little Naked Naturists




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The Neo Naturists on Feminism, Nightclubs and Nudity
As their inaugural London exhibition opens at Studio Voltaire, AnOther sits down with the women who made body-painting a political act, to talk about getting your kit off for the sake of art
Lead ImageNeo Naturists, Flashing in the British Museum, Christine Binnie body-painted and phtographed by Wilma Johnson, British Museum, London, 3 March 1982Courtesy of the Neo Naturists Archive
Anarchic, nude and vitally, vibrantly fun, 1980s performance group the Neo Naturists were a glorious tits-out reprise to Thatcherite Britain, to stiff upper lips and to art world po-faces. The group’s main members were Christine Binnie, Jennifer Binnie and Wilma Johnson, and its raison d’être was deliberately bold and hippyish – a daring move at a time when to be a hippy was deeply unfashionable. Over the course of a five-year period in the early 1980s, the Neo Naturists took their naked, painted bodies out onto the street and into nightclubs, creating their own unique brand of performance art.
It all came about fairly organically, the trio explains. Christine was a life model, and when Wilma set about drawing her, "it only took half a day for her to be painting my body, and not just a picture of me," Christine explains. “Then I painted her.” Both Jennifer and Wilma had studied fine art, at Portsmouth University and Central Saint Martin’s respectively, while Christine turned to craft, focusing on pottery. Together, they broached political ideas around society, austerity and the female body in the most joyous way imaginable. What’s more, the Neo Naturists lived as alternative a lifestyle as their artwork would suggest, living in squats and parading around in clubs like Heaven, Taboo and The Blitz. Among their associates were leading lights in the club kid gay scene, from filmmaker Derek Jarman and dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, to performance artist Leigh Bowery, as well as art world characters like Grayson Perry, Jennifer’s boyfriend at the time.
Since the 1980s the Neo Naturists have been mostly making paintings, but at first their work was characterised by these nude body performance pieces. Their flesh would become a canvas for wild and colourful designs: boobs frequently formed the eyes for a cheerfully made-up face, bellies were the fulcrum for tribal-like swirling patterns, or in the case of Grayson Perry, the body’s inner muscular structure was rendered external in bright primary colours, accessorised with a little penis decoration.
Ahead of the Neo Naturists’ new retrospective exhibition – completing the group’s progression from public performance to gallery setting – we met the three founding members at London’s Studio Voltaire as they wiped away the residual flecks of body-paint after a day of daubing the walls with their flesh.
On how it all began...
Wilma Johnson: "Part of the thing of doing the Neo Naturists was using women as women, rather than their being a sort of object. Historically in art the woman is the model and the muse, and not the person who’s actually making the work about their naked bodies. So we were turning that around."
Christine Binnie: "In Yves Klein’s work he had models painted, but they were just models, and it was his art. But with us, we'd all paint each other: it’s not just about being a painted body, but the process of how we get ready and what we do with it afterwards.
One of the inspirations behind starting Neo Naturists, for me, was transvestites. I remember going to the Black Cap [a north London pub famed for its drag acts] and seeing these men on stage with their bosoms Sellotaped together to give them cleavages, and coming on stage, having a lovely time, and just showing off. I remember thinking ‘that’s really not fair, how come those men are allowed to go on stage and just have fun showing off, and I’m not allowed to?’ That was one of the things that led me to performance art."
Jennifer Binnie: "I think also, there wasn’t any other way for us at the time. When you left art college you didn’t really know what to do. There wasn’t much talk about careers or how to get recognised."
WJ: "We’d been through the punk thing, which became a bit negative to say the least, then the New Romantics thing, and we were dressing more and more extremely. For a year I dressed as Marie Antoinette. Then we thought ‘let's get even more extreme and just not dress’. It was part of a whole thing about seeing how far we could go."
On what it was really like being a Neo Naturist…
JB: "At the time there was a big crossover between what we did as artists, and what we did in life. For me there wasn’t a clear definition. I was definitely having a good time. I loved those days. We did it all on instinct."
CB: "I don’t want to be part of the illusion that it was all wonderful, but I went along with it and at times I think I was really unhappy. I’m worried about this sort of heyday thing and romanticising the past and all that, but I’m a lot happier now than I was then, just generally in myself and how I find ways to express myself."
JB: "Everything is ups and downs though, isn’t it? I thought it was an amazing time. I only lived in the squat for three years and that period was really intense in terms of exhibiting our work as artists, and doing the cabaret and making films. Everything we did and the way we lived in the squat was all about creativity. There wasn’t really anything else."
WJ: "We just used to turn up at a nightclub naked and everyone would go 'great, the Neo Naturists are here!' Doing that now, we'd probably be arrested."
On being naked body-painted in your 50s…
JB: "Now we’re in our 50s and 60s, we’ve realised it’s really important. From the moment we got into the gallery last week, there wasn’t really an issue about whether we’d be naked or not."
WJ: "I think we did it to counteract that myth about being an invisible woman in your 50s – that idea that you’re no longer young and no one’s going to look at you."
CB: "I’ve always known I want to be body-painted when I’m 80, but this is the awkward in-between stage – you’re not young and you’re not old. But it’s probably the most important stage to be body-painted at. When you do it, it’s really easy but somehow it makes you very outside of the world; most people don’t go and hang out in a gallery and take their clothes off and do body-painting. When you go back into the normal world you sort of can’t remember what you’re supposed to do."
On men and women’s naked bodies…
JB: "I think the performances were quite hard for the men, I think they became more vulnerable than us. When we did performances in nightclubs sometimes it was just us three as women, and that was all right. Then doing it with a man, people were outraged and did really horrible things like throwing lighted cigarettes at the boys. It brought out something quite horrible in people, but women's bodies were much more ‘acceptable’. I suppose people are more used to seeing women’s bodies. There’s an element of titillation to having women’s bodies on stage, but when it’s mens’ it takes that away from the men in the audience a bit."
CB: "Also, it’s illegal [for men to be naked]. We did an experiment at Centrepoint and we were nude, so when the policemen approached us we talked to them about the difference between indecent exposure, which is what nude men are charged with, and insulting behaviour, which is the charge for women. It’s something to do with Queen Victoria, I think. So we stopped and talked to them, because if we’d run away we’d have been arrested like streakers used to be. There’s a sliding scale of what’s deemed ‘insulting’ behaviour. It’s different for men and women in that way."
On their complex relationship with feminism…
CB: "There was something about being having big bosoms that made it different to be nude. There were performance artists who did feminist performance art, but they all seemed to be these young women with small bosoms and bobs, they were very neat and boyish. In a way, one of the things we were doing was testing the edges of feminist performance art, but I don’t know if we would have said that at the time. We were sort of rebelling against what feminist performance art might be like, and we'd get told off by a lot of feminists for our performances. They objected to blatant showing off of big bosoms. I used to say ‘I don’t call myself a feminist, but I’m glad the feminists came before me,’ so I kind of felt we were the next generation. I identified feminists as people in dungarees who told you off for being nude."
WJ: "Feminism now is just about believing women should be equal, so I don’t see why anyone would think they weren’t a feminist. What we did fed into our going against the whole fashion industry thing of androgynous women and those body extremes, which is obviously still a problem. Our performances were always quite funny, and we were just having too much fun [for the feminist artists]. We say now that of course we were feminists, but it was very much linked with denial of femininity and feminine things. For us, our work was a celebration of the female body and what we are. We were taking these rituals around women's place in society, like cooking and doing housework and those sorts of things, and completely turning them on their heads to make them into empowering goddess rituals, but at the time we wouldn’t have said ‘this is a feminist performance’."
On the messages in their work…
CB: "Our work is about other things than naked bodies. We’re looking at things like nature and anthropology and society, in a way, it’s about a group of people. It’s radical because it’s not just about one thing, and there are spiritual angles coming through. We were semi-aware of what we were doing, but also we just wanted to make beautiful art and have a laugh at the same time."
The Neo Naturists runs from July 8 until August 24, 2016, at Studio Voltaire, London.
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Posted 25 Sep 2020, by Philomena Epps
'Art, Life and Us', the current exhibition at Towner, is the first to be guest-curated by artists. The gallery has invited the sisters Christine and Jennifer Binnie to select around 50 works, building a show from the permanent collection. Looking primarily at the natural world and the body, 'Art, Life and Us' also marks a homecoming of sorts for the pair.
© the artists. photo credit: Christine Binnie and Jennifer Binnie
Sexist Crabs Performance, Portland Bill Sculpture Park
1984, photograph by Christine Binnie and Jennifer Binnie
After they moved from Hampton Wick, London to Wannock, Eastbourne in the 1960s, the rural landscape of East Sussex played an important role in the formation of the artists' identity and cultural development. They both attended Eastbourne College of Art and Design, and as Christine asserts in the exhibition guide, 'After Eastbourne Art College … we lived our lives as art.'
© the Ethelbert White estate. Photo credit: Towner
Examples from their own radical and exuberant artistic output have been interwoven throughout the gallery, notably Christine's decorated earthenware pottery and Jennifer's oil and gouache paintings. Numerous watercolour paintings of trees and landscapes by their father, Kenneth Binnie, have also been included. Despite having their own independent practices, Christine and Jennifer have collaborated throughout much of their lives.
© the artist. photo credit: Wilma Johnson / Towner Collection, Eastbourne
Neo Naturist: Christine Binnie body-painted at St Martin's School of Art
In the 1980s, when living in London, the two of them formed the collective the Neo Naturists with their friend Wilma Johnson. Their live art performances, in which they were notorious for turning up at nightclubs adorned in nothing but body paint, intersected with squat culture and the New Romantic club scene.
A photograph in the exhibition from 1982, taken by Johnson in their studio at St Martin's School of Art, shows Christine with a face depicted in paint daubed with flourish over her naked skin: her breasts turned into eyes and a large smiling mouth spreading across her abdomen.
By contrast, a significant proportion of the show has been dedicated to representations of the South Downs as captured by Ethelbert White. These are impressions of the chalk pits by Canon Smythe, the Friston Forest by Robert Tavender, or snowy scenes of the local village Alciston by Frank Wootton.
© the artist's estate. Photo credit: Towner
In Wannock Weekend (1980), an early film made by the Neo Naturists and one in a series being shown on a loop in the exhibition, they are shown enjoying the pleasures of the bucolic landscape with an extended group of friends, including the artists Grayson Perry and Cerith Wyn Evans. In one scene, Christine simulates sex with 'The Long Man of Wilmington', a large hill figure carved into Windover Hill, on the northern slope of the South Downs. Neo Naturist performances often combined references to pastoral symbolism and pagan ritual to play with feminist sexuality issues, reviving the spirit of 1960s bodily liberation.
In a catalogue essay from 2002, the curator Andrew Wilson refers to this unique combination as 'English village fête practicality with Girl Guide common sense, hippie idealism, the spirit of love, a child-like innocence and amateurism, all in a post-punk context.'
The empowered female form was a key curatorial interest for the sisters when choosing works from the Towner’s collection. Christine writes, 'We chose as many nudes as possible to reflect the Neo Naturists.' The work of Harry Phelan Gibb, the British Modernist painter inspired by Fauvism and the European avant-garde, appealed to them due to the fact 'women are nearly always in groups rather than on their own…a feeling of nude female solidarity.'
The pastel-hued oil-on-canvas works, such as Rose Nudes in a Landscape and Rose Nudes (1913), particularly demonstrate this, with women and children shown peacefully bathing and reclining.
Drawings by Alfred Stevens and Paule Vézelay's drypoint etching Two Women (1927) also depict women in pairs. In the early 1920s, Vézelay spent her summers on the hedonistic French Riviera, and her work from that period often showed nude swimmers and sunbathers.
© the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Towner
Occasionally, the representations of nude women are more ambivalent, and the decision to include Walter Richard Sickert's The Poet and His Muse (1907) caused debate between the two curators. For Jennifer, 'the woman is strong and holding her own in spite of being naked. She has her hand on the man and is standing while he sits, and so seems to me to be in a position of power.'
Whereas, for Christine, 'it reminds me of the unease felt when as a life model I found myself too close to a man. I can smell the sweaty tweed and feel its scratchiness.'
Another work in the show, Eric Ravilious' illustration Girl with Palms, was made for the dust jacket of Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser. In the book, the libidinal awakening of the female protagonist is inspired by her studies at Kew Gardens. The importance of the symbiotic connection between people and the natural landscape, although not necessarily in an erotic sense, was another consideration for the exhibition.
In relation to Edward Louis Lawrenson's The Last Sussex Team, Jennifer observes, 'this painting is so beautiful and poignant, speaking of a bygone age when people were closer to the earth and to animals.'
Frederick Goodall's oil painting Gypsy Encampment shows a romanticised view of a family living in a shelter in the fields, cooking on an open fire. Like the Sickert, Ilsa Rodmell's undated oil Chase (The Hunt) is another choice that is riddled with visual and theoretical contradictions.
'I like the naïve cheerful quality of it', writes Jennifer, 'the event creates a colourful pageant-style spectacle which must be exhilarating to participate in. However on the other hand, hunting is barbaric, cruel and an outdated activity. I can't understand how anyone can take pleasure in torturing and killing an animal.'
© the copyright holder. Photo credit: Towner
A series of intricate pencil drawings on paper by Elizabeth Paget Smith, found in the collection, were of particular intrigue to Christine and Jennifer, showing the area detailed 'through the eyes of a woman living more than a century ago'. This lineage between two local female artistic talents, living and working one hundred years apart, feels significant to the theme of the exhibition, celebrating the beauty and the cycle of life.
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