Splashing body paint across London, the Neo Naturists are a witty and subversive strand of performance art. Their work challenges and explores the place of women as objects and muses in the art world.
The collective was formed in the 80’s by Christine Binnie, Jennifer Binnie and Wilma Johnson. Other collaborators from film, music, dance and art have included Grayson Perry, Michael Clark, Boy George, Derek Jarman, John Maybury and Leigh Bowery.
Part of, and a reaction to, the underground scene that sprang up around punk and post punk scenes, their performances often took place in nightclubs, performing regularly at Heaven and the Blitz. Their shows combined song, pagan ritual, provocation and humour – memorable shows included a night at Brixton’s Fridge in 1982, where Neo Naturists, sporting only body paint and crabs as fig leaves, placed prawns in the mouths of the audience. A Halloween performance involved birthing apples in bags of red blood followed by inviting the audience to participate in apple-bobbing.
Neo Naturists, the retrospective currently showing at Studio Voltaire, is a riotous celebration of the group’s archives and performances. You’ll have to hurry – it closes this weekend, after a party at the ICA tonight, Wednesday 24th August.
Jennifer Binnie: WIA Artist Q&A
What are you doing today?
Today I am: buying a new gas cooker as my old one has just been condemned!, mowing the lawn, doing the washing / cleaning the house in preparation for Airbnb guests, packing my bag for an early trip to London tomorrow for our performance at the ICA, looking for trashy gold jewellery/ bells/ ribbons for the cabaret, doing designs for corn dolly bodypaint, acclimatising myself after a two week holiday in Sweden, trying to find time to play my violin a bit, sending emails about arrangements for the ICA, and now I’m doing this!
Tell us about your creative process
At the moment it is hard to say when I am ‘being an artist’ and when I’m not. It feels like everything I do is part of the creative process, somehow even the more mundane activities feed in to the art that I end up making. I meet a friend for a walk and we talk about art and feelings, I hang the washing outside on the line and I feel like I’m doing a performance, I make my guest room look beautiful for my next set of bnb guests – am I curating a bedroom space?
In Sweden I did little sketches of trees and rocks and the railway line – will they become paintings? I don’t know but I think they will feed into whatever I end up doing next.
Describe where you do most of your creative work
As I’ve just explained, there isn’t a clear line between art and life at the moment so I am being creative all over the place. I have got a studio though and that is where I do most of my paintings, its a sort of log cabin in the garden.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
The project I’m working on at the moment, the Neo Naturist live retrospective at Studio Voltaire is very exciting. It’s exciting, partly because we’ve had a lot of attention from the media and the show and the events round it have been well attended, this makes me feel like it is a success, and all the effort that went into it is worthwhile. I was unsure how I would feel about doing a show that is so much about the past as the archive material which forms the main part of the show focuses on work done in the mid 80s but somehow, working with Christine and Wilma again on the bodyprints and performances has really brought the whole thing alive and it has been interesting to hear what younger people, especially young women, think and feel about it all.
I am also excited about my work as a painter, I’m looking forward to having time this Autumn to really focus on my work in that area. I am always excited about my work when I get into it, I never really know what is going to happen and that is what makes it exciting – I wouldn’t do if it wasn’t!
What made you decide to become an artist?
I have always been very creative. Both of our parents were creative people and both me and Christine were encouraged to paint and to make things from a very young age. Painting has always been a very natural form of expression to me because I have always done it! Both of us went to art college which was a great place to be as a young person in the 70s and 80s when we were there so part of it was about the social life around the colleges, it was also about being with other people who were creative and how the friends I made at that time were like me in that their creativity wasn’t just about going into college and doing paintings or sculpture, the creativity extended into all areas of our lives.
What are you currently working on?
Its all about the Studio Voltaire show at the moment and has been for the past few months. That show is coming to end soon though and I’m looking forward to doing some paintings. I have a collaborative show with Jenifer Corker at the Blackshed Gallery in East Sussex in December so I’ll be doing work for that next.
What are the key themes in your work?
Painting. I love painting and colour because of the transformative effect it has on things and that is as relevant whether I’m painting a person – a body, a picture or something else. I like painting Things, objects, found objects – or making things to paint on and transform. The paintings I make usually have a narrative of some kind, I use images to express feelings, emotions, atmospheres. I am interested in animals and nature but in an emotional way more than depicting them literally.
What would you like people to notice in your work?
I like it when I feel like people have made a connection, an emotional connection to something I’ve painted. It’s hard to explain exactly what that is but it is something that I sometimes experience when I look at a work of art. It goes beyond just liking something – the feeling is more that you know it, that you understand totally what the painting is about. In a way, I think I use painting as a form of communication – to communicate ideas, feelings, thoughts that can’t be expressed in any other way – a bit like music perhaps, and I like it when people get it.
What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
I’m attracted of course to the mediums that work for me. At the moment I’m really enjoying working in oil paint on unprimed wood. I like the way the oil paint bonds with the wood and bleeds into it so it really becomes part of it. I’m using quite a lot of linseed oil with my paint at the moment. I’ve been working mainly in oil paint since art college – I love the intensity of colour you can get with oil and the way it doesn’t dry so you can continue to manipulate it and change it for a long time.
I have also really enjoyed using aqua colour bodypaint on raw skin again. It is a water based theatrical bodypaint which we have always used, it comes in a huge range of colours and is really enjoyable to use!
What equipment could you not do without?
The aqua colour, definitely. Also, my studio. I really need somewhere where I can be alone to focus on my work.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by nature more than anything, by the weather, the seasons and the light and the way these things constantly change.
Does gender affect your work?
I think so … I think I am a very female kind of artist and part of that is not having huge success or recognition in the art world! I sometimes wonder how things would be different if I was a man but I think I would have done a different kind of art if I was a man. I think men are more able to focus on one thing and be obsessive which is sometimes what is needed to get recognition. Female energy tends to be more rounded, more spread out – that’s why I have been talking about how there isn’t a clear line between when I’m making art and when I’m not. It has been a great thing for Christine, Wilma and I to have some recognition of the work we have done as the Neo naturists but I couldn’t help thinking of that Guerrilla Girls poster that says something like ‘the only way a woman can get into the Museum of Modern Art is by being naked’ – it disturbed me slightly when I realised that!
What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
I honestly don’t think I have one – it just depends on what I’m going to see and if it inspires me. My most recent really positive experience of looking at art was seeing the Nikolas Astrup painting exhibition at the Dulwhich Picture Gallery.
If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
If I had to name my all time favourite painting, it would be Uccello’s ‘Hunt in The Forest’. I wouldn’t mind having that on my wall!
If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
I would like to do a collaboration with one of the very early artists, the cave painters. I would like to go back in time and paint animals on the walls of the Lascaux cave. I would love to know what that was all about, really – the paintings are so beautiful and so skillfully done.
Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
It’s hard to say – once an artist or group has recognition they become formed in a way by the recognition and the context in which they are placed – this is a necessary part of achieving success but it is a strange thing because the work is as much about the curator or gallery and the context in which they put the work as it is about the artist. Also, art and art movements go in and out of fashion all the time it’s just the way things are. I’m sure there are a great many underrated artists but who knows when they might suddenly come into the light?
What’s your favourite colour?
All colours – but mixed together they make brown, so maybe brown?