In 1981, sisters Christine Binnie, Jennifer Binnie and fellow St Martin’s student Wilma Johnson founded the Neo Naturists. Together they developed their performance art, which this month, goes on show at Studio Voltaire.
In the sharp-edged, power-dressed, ruthlessly professional climate of the Thatcherite 80s, macho neo-expressionist figuration and heavy duty philosophical theorising dominated the art world. With their female nudity and references to the English pastoral, homely pursuits such as camping, girl guiding and harvest festivals, the Neo Naturists were an incongruous presence.
Emerging from a punk subculture connected to the New Romantic club scene, the Neo Naturists sat outside of mainstream culture and provided a fresh narrative against the backdrop of intense economic, political and social change in 80’s Britain. A whole host of artists became part of their network of performers, including the likes of BodyMap, James Birch, Leigh Bowery, Jill Bruce, Michael Clark, David Dawson, Peter Doig, Simon Foxton, Boy George, Derek Jarman, Princess Julia, Bruce Lacey, Andrew Logan, Marilyn, John Maybury, Maia Norman, Grayson Perry, Psychic TV, Philip Sallon, Test Department, Jill Westwood, Dencil Williams and Cerith Wyn Evans. All of whom are captured in various points throughout the exhibition.
United by a belief in the radical and subversive potential of body painting, the Neo Naturists performed at clubs and parties. Performances however, were neverrehearsed and a schedule would only be discussed hours beforehand, with props sourced at the very last minute. This was part of a conscious effort by the group not to be packaged: a deeply non-commercial position with intended to hold up Utopianism and innocence against the commodified, ‘sexually packaged’ body promoted in the 80s, and the conservative moral backlash towards it.
This exhibition offers an opportunity to experience a significant selection of the Neo Naturists’ extraordinary practice first hand. In doing so, the exhibition promotes a wider recognition of the importance of the group’s work, which remain as sharply radical and affective in the present moment as thirty years ago.