Doing it for themselves: meet the Binnie Sisters
PUBLISHED: 09:19 24 September 2020
© Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
In the 1980s, East Sussex artists Christine and Jennifer Binnie took the London art world by storm. Now they are working together to reclaim the recognition they feel they deserve
Christine and Jennifer Binnie laugh a lot. Sometimes it’s a giggle, more often it’s a big, joyous hoot. It’s unusual – and refreshing – to meet artists that don’t take themselves 100 per cent seriously. But then they never were ones for fitting in. Even in the heady 1980s, when the sisters shared squats and partied with an unconventional crowd including Boy George and Marilyn, they were slight oddities, cavorting “naked and red-faced” as anarchic art collective the Neo-Naturists while their peers postured in hip London nightclubs. “The performance artists we’d seen didn’t smile,” says Christine, of forming the group along with fellow artist Wilma Johnson. “They were very white with tiny bosoms and bobs. We’re not like that. And if being serious is performance art then we felt having a laugh must be performance art too.”
We’re squinting against the sun on the balcony of Eastbourne’s Towner gallery, where the sisters are about to open a new exhibition – works they have chosen from the archives paired with new work by themselves. Jennifer, the younger of the two, has decorated the gallery walls with bold, colour-saturated images inspired by “the Downs, the woods and human and animal bodies” while Christine tells me about a traditional bent wood bender they have installed and filled with objects she has made – a nod to her long-term involvement in East Sussex Archeology and Museums Partnership, which has encouraged her to “weave ancient ideas and techniques into my work”. There will be no nudity, however. Now in their sixties, the sisters have less patience for shivering their way through a full body paint and besides, they know too many people locally. It would be awkward.
They grew up in Wannock, a sedate suburb near Polegate. Their father, a keen painter who admired Austrian philosopher and painter Rudolf Steiner, would take them on countryside sketching trips and they were encouraged to paint “very freely” from a young age, says Jennifer. “Mum allowed us as many art materials as we wanted, even though she was otherwise very frugal, and we were allowed to ‘waste’ endless rolls of paper because she believed it wasn’t a waste when you were making art.” Both went on to study at Eastbourne Art College, which was a kind of homecoming, Christine says: “I had just turned 16 and was the youngest person there and I loved it. It was such a different world from school. Suddenly I was happy. It was partly doing art and partly because all the weirdos from the other schools in the area were also there and we were all doing art together.” Jennifer, who had witnessed her sister having “the most fantastic time”, soon followed her there, and dreamily describes a 1970s utopia featuring “the most handsome boys I’d ever met, with long hair and velvet trousers.”
More: Painter John Hitchens reflects on his life’s work
Christine later moved to London, where she got a job as a security guard at Tate Britain. “I remember guarding an exhibition where [American multi-media artist] Ann Beam would come in, string a raw chicken up and then start swinging it around the audience, or put a cookbook in a blender. I’d never really seen performance art before and I remember thinking, I like this, this looks like fun.” When Jennifer, then a fine art student at Portsmouth Polytechnic, would visit the Greenwich squat where her sister lived, they began making tentative performances of their own, sometimes enlisting the help of Jennifer’s boyfriend, Grayson Perry. “Grayson was just coming out as a transvestite and getting to know Christine’s friends, who included Boy George and Marilyn, kind of changed his life,” remarks Jennifer. “He suddenly realised there were boys that wear make-up and dresses and it was almost weird if you didn’t, in that environment.” Further revelation came when Christine introduced the young artist to the notion of drawing onto pottery. At that point, she says, he was still making work from things he found in skips. “When I saw his drawings I thought they almost looked like that old 17th century slipware – they were just like Thomas Toft - and I said, look, I can show you how to get your sketchbooks onto pots. Come to a pottery class with me.”
The group soon became fixtures on the capital’s alternative nightlife scene. The Neo-Naturists famously flashed in the British Museum and in almost every avant-garde nightclub from Heaven to The Blitz, before Jennifer decided to leave Grayson and return to Jevington, East Sussex, where she swiftly got married (to Wilma Johnson’s ex, Wilf Rogers) and had a baby. “I was dropped like a stone by art galleries. There were mutterings about not being able to be a mother and an artist, and that I’d lost my edge since having a baby. My work has always been really important to me and I assumed it would carry on, but it didn’t, not in the same way.” Christine remained in London for a while (she is now in Birling Gap) but also struggled to maintain momentum within the art world. Neither achieved the same level of recognition as their male contemporaries, not least Grayson Perry, who would go on to win the 2003 Turner Prize for his pottery. “I think men are better at being ambitious,” remarks Christine. Around a decade ago the pair made a decision to have another crack at the art world, working together as the Binnie Sisters to gain the recognition they feel they deserve. There has since been a revival of interest in the work of the Neo-Naturists – including a 2016 retrospective at London gallery Studio Voltaire – and in the Binnies as artists in their own rights; the Towner show follows an exhibition at London’s Kunstraum (The Muddy Clearing) with more announcements planned for 2021. So, they apologise, they do have to get back to work. Quite right. I sincerely hope they get the last laugh.
Art, Life and Us: Christine Binnie and Jennifer Binnie and the Towner Collection, Towner, until 16 May 2021.