I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of The Neo Naturists until their exhibition at Studio Voltaire in 2016, but I was instantly smitten. What’s not to love about a group of radical body positive women stripping off and shouting out? The Neo Naturists were formed when Christine Binnie and Wilma Johnson were at Central St Martins in the early 80’s. They soon grew to include Christine’s sister, Jennifer Binnie, who was attending Portsmouth Polytechnic and involved in similar experiments with her friend Grayson Perry.
Interested in expanded notions of painting, they began exploring their bodies as a canvas and quickly moved into performance, collaborating and mixing with a wide range of people from London’s subcultures: Michael Clark, Boy George, Princess Julia, Bodymap, John Maybury and Cerith Wyn Evans to name a few. The group eschewed the dominant narratives of the 80’s wealth, power, individualism and instead focused on making DIY and pointedly ‘unprofessional’ work that was almost impossible to trade.
Connected as it was to the demise of punk and rise of Thatcherism, The Neo Naturists’ performances emerged in London’s club scene, where a roster of club kids and new romantics sought refuge from an increasingly conservative mainstream culture. Although part of this movement, the group consciously shirked off the groomed glamour of the time and looked to the natural world, paganism and the body with their work making reference to typically english pursuits, harvest festivals and girl guiding, in addition to a later focus on fertility and life cycles. A wholly confident and deeply celebratory presentation of womanhood was at the heart of the work and continues to be to this day.
As part of the exhibition, Studio Voltaire held an evening with The Neo Naturists at the ICA, their first live performance with the full line up since 1986. It was a big beautiful messy night with a set from The Raincoats, a disco dancing competition, go go dancing to ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ and a ‘Corn Sister’s’ performance, where a troupe of body painted characters led by The Neo Naturists played out an anti capitalist narrative about the triumph of nature over capitalism (I think!).
The night at the ICA and the wider show demonstrated everything that I love about Studio Voltaire, a total disregard for notions of what is fashionable in the art world, a keen interest in the work of overlooked female and queer artists, and a deepseated comfort in letting go and being joyful while engaging with profound subjects.
I hadn’t heard of Judith Bernstein (and she probably hadn’t heard of The Raincoats) when Studio Voltaire’s Director, Joe Scotland, asked if we would make a special performance during Judith’s show ‘Rising’ in 2014. Joe had recognised that we had some things in common. I am not sure how aware I was at the time quite how much that actually was, but writing this has crystallised my thoughts. Meeting Judith was a wonderful experience; she is so full of life and humour, as well as being forthright and tough. We all laughed and joked and talked seriously too.
Judith Bernstein importantly uses humour in her work. It is a salvation, it is a life force. In the 1970s, being called a feminist was challenging. We were supposed to be humourless. The patriarchy seems to have always wanted to undermine the women’s movement, calling it sour, bitter, ugly, hairy, and all things that young women don’t want to be associated with. It is and was a hard slog to get out from under that. It is important to have an ‘I don’t care’ attitude to operate in the face of this, but humour is our weapon. “Laughter is almost like an ejaculation.. you laugh and the emotion goes out and it’s a release”.
Sometimes you need to shout out loud. Judith Bernstein’s giant screws are at once full of humour and anger. This anger flows through the works, productively. And they are multi layered: they identify the patriarchy, they play with that power and they also play with scale. The man-sized scale of the abstract expressionists, the man-sized scale of knowing you are important. Do not wilt, do not hide away. Put your head above the parapet. Be mocked, be insulted, be there. As the Guerrilla Girls say ‘Anger is a good place to start’. Along with this, bring your courage, your humour, your biography, those thoughts you may have dismissed as being too out there, that don’t fit in. Bring those with you and paint and draw them large.
This work was all made in situ in a two week period. Judith Bernstein worked tirelessly and energetically on huge scaffolding to make the work. The giant screws, in charcoal towering, spiralling, laughing. The work in the smaller room is one huge painting. Glowing in the dark, it is a world at which the centre is a huge labia, the entrance to the vagina – where the world is created. Surrounding this are the penises of the worker bees, the cocks erect and flaccid, some having done their shift, others ready. They are smaller in scale and are less important in this work. It is colourful, cartoonish and science fiction-y. It is a way of looking at the universe in opposition to the male-centric view. It is powerful, colourful and funny.
Judith Bernstein’s artwork came to public attention when she was a founding member of AIR – the women’s art movement – in New York 1969. She wanted to call it TWAT, Twenty Women Artists Together, but that was vetoed – a bit too risky. It was a space that only exhibited women’s work and Judith had her first solo show there in 1973. I remember being at a meeting of a new leftfield magazine from Rock against Racism or was it Sexism? run by men. I remember nervously piping up with a suggestion of a title, Post Patriarchy, I think it was. So many papers were using Post…evening Post, Nottingham Post, etc. I was not listened to. Did I expect to be? No! The loud-voiced, politically experienced voices of the men, who knew they could shout you down, dismiss your concerns.
These women worked together and gave each other courage and space to make work that was not acceptable to the wider art world. Judith Bernstein has a lot of experience of this, for example, having been refused a grade at art school, she left without qualification.
Hornsey Art School 1976
Ana and I met at art school in the autumn of 1976 in London. Punk was emerging and we were both fascinated onlookers and pogoing participants, going to the Roxy, putting sugar in our hair, dancing like crazy and drinking too much in my case.
Like most people who went to the Roxy, we eventually formed a band, but it was the emergence of a few women instrumentalists and poets that encouraged us most. We didn’t want to be singers and front people, we just wanted to be in the midst of all that energy. But suddenly we were writing songs and playing our instruments in a way that was thought to be at odds with the mainstream boys punk. It was a revolutionary moment…normality seemed to have broken down in our area of counter culture. However, we were rarely included in lists of punk, we were mostly ostracised by the big guys. We didn’t fit in.
The art school didn’t consider what we were doing to be art. I graduated showing super 8 films and made odd recordings of orchestras of domestic appliances and drawings.
We are all happy that now as we are older women, finally there are more and more cracks for us to enter through, to get recognition for the work done many years ago, and fantastic opportunities to make work now. We are all still feisty and energetic and full of life and creativity.
To find out more about Rising, click here.
Over the years Studio Voltaire’s distinctive vaulted gallery has been a rich source of inspiration for artists; and I especially loved the way in which in which, for her 2014 Voltaire commission ‘Rising,’ Judith Bernstein transformed the former Victorian Methodist chapel into a gloriously exuberant feminist temple of the erotic. In place of an altarpiece her giant painting ‘Golden Birth of the Universe’ covered the entire back wall with an emphatically female apotheosis in the form of a gaping fluorescent yellow vagina lined with shark’s teeth and with a coiled double helix – that also could be read as the number 69 – at its centre.
Ringed by fleshy labia and with a beard of fibrous strokes flowing onto what appeared to be a neck and shoulders, this vivid monstrous deity – or ‘Cuntface’ according to a painted label in its top corner – was set against a cosmic background of gold and ultramarine blue, studded with Dayglo stars. Hovering on high like phallic putti, a pair of squirting penises seemed poised to hurtle into the vagina dentata maw while floating lower down on either side two smaller cartoonish faces were formed from more flaccid cocks and balls, complete with long-lashed eyes.
More male members were in attendance in the form of five colossal vertical phallic ‘Screws’ drawn in charcoal and chalk on linen and installed in the alcoves along the chapel’s side walls. Bernstein has been parodying phallocentricity with these depictions of hardware screws vigorously morphing into penises since the 1970’s, and in Voltaire her signature images of feminist protest acquired a new grandeur whilst losing none of their satirical sting. Unfurling from ceiling to floor and twisting like baroque Solomonic columns, the caricatures of masculine hubris assumed the form of an animated guard of honour, standing to attention and offering a vigorous counterpoint to what Bernstein described as ‘the active cunt’ of ‘Golden Birth.’
‘Rising’ was the perfect title for a show that was uplifting in every sense. It was impossible not to be exhilarated by the pulsing energy of Bernstein’s throat-grabbing religious and art historical mash-up, with her gleeful references ranging from Gustave Courbet’s Origine du Monde to the Virgin of Guadaloupe, with a deft sideswipe at Magritte’s ‘Le Viol’ as well as the doleful fall guys of Philip Guston. Here, in her powerfully audacious female version of the Big Bang, all symbols of patriarchy paid obeisance to the awe inspiring, life-giving, all-consuming power of the yoni.
Overall the spirit was one of explosively good humoured celebration with the violence more cartoonish than castrating. As Bernstein herself said in an interview at the time, “there’s anger in my work but there is a lot of play in it, and raw humour. Humour and laughter are cathartic in the way that ejaculation is cathartic.” In these bleak shuttered times, threatened by an unknown virus and presided over by a pussy-grabbing US president and a philandering UK prime minister, I feel that a hefty dose of Bernstein’s seriously angry humour is just what we need.
To find out more about Rising, click here.
‘This research does not stay on the page, or screen but has populated our daily lives and heightened our experience of the present. Through Spence’s approach to photography as a transformative process, documentation of her life with breast cancer, and education around alternative therapy and self-education through radical sociology, Spence’s work has pushed us to the limits of what we can involve ourselves in. We are taking on Spence’s ideas, with ourselves as subjects, and sharing with our present communities.’
In 2011 I started a new and exciting job, working at Studio Voltaire as Education Curator to support a project that Joe had been developing for some time through conversations with Terry Dennett and the Jo Spence Memorial Archive. These conversations were towards a presentation of Jo Spence’s work, which would be the first major showing of Spence’s work in the UK since her death in 1992 and would take place in two parts across Studio Voltaire and Space.
An integral part of the curatorial process for Studio Voltaire was to develop a discursive and educational programme – following Jo Spence’s lead as a cultural worker who prioritised collaboration and pedagogy in her practice and life. Jo left an incredible body of work, research, writing and teaching methods in a personal archive in her old flat. Terry Dennett who was a life long collaborator with Jo cared for the flat, the archive and her legacy. Terry was an incredibly generous and interesting man, a socialist photographer with endless energy to keep the work, the politics, the care of Jo’s legacy present and connected.
We titled the programme Not Our Class and its aim was to invite others to access the archive and through knowledge sharing, collaboration, research and practice take the work of Jo Spence as a starting point for investigating the legacy and potentials of her work in relation to contemporary culture and life.
The Not Our Class programme was formed and shaped by an incredible constellation of people; Ego Ahaiwe, Lauren Craig, Terry Dennett, Luke Gould, Althea Greenan, Emma Hedditch, Yula Burin, Zoe Holloway, Mystique Holloway, Marysia Lewandowska, Rosy Martin, Gina Nembhard, Paul Peroni, Joe Scotland, Simon Watney, Rehana Zaman. Moments; the closure of Lambeth Women’s Project, my own Mum’s cancer diagnosis, a conservative government getting into their stride, protests, cuts to welfare, Artists for the NHS Campaign. And places; Body and Soul, The Macmillan Centre at King’s College Hospital, IntoArt, Trinity Hospice, St Christopher’s Hospice and so many more that supported ideas, research and references.
Not Our Class was collectively realised through a series of commissions, offsite projects, workshops, public events and reading groups. We started lots of conversations about Jo’s work with people working in and accessing different healthcare settings, with artists, activists, educators and community groups. It was important to Not Our Class that the work and ideas produced sat firmly and critically within contemporary art, pedagogy and curatorial discourse. The project was not providing outreach or art therapy – it was to open up a productive contemporary conversation and ask what potential lies in these historical examples for contemporary artists and groups and to generate more critical questions for the present and for the future.
The Commissions were formed by so many conversations, working together and figuring things out through action, rehearsal, revision, sharing and making. In a sense it is impossible to describe the projects in a neat description.
In summary but certainly not exhaustively the first project came through a conversation with artist Emma Hedditch who introduced me to Lambeth Women’s Project and Ego Ahaiwe who then invited five other women; Mystique Holloway, Gina Nembhard, Lauren Craig, Yula Burin and Zoe Holloway, to engage in a new collective research project. It is impossible to explain the energy, care and commitment that this collective supported, I think of it and draw from it often. Named X Marks the Spot the group took the focus of Spence’s work on body image, health, and the representation of a life lived in the most social political form possible and found ways to relate this to their own desires and lives, to the Lambeth Women’s Project, the history of black women’s collectives in London, and issues of taboo in black women’s health. X Marks the Spot collectively researched, held regular meetings, undertook interviews and workshops – research was shared through a series of public events, publishing, a radio show and a blog.
For the second commission Rehana Zaman was invited to develop research and work and collaborated with Body & Soul, an organisation who support teenagers living with and affected by HIV. The group discussed patient/doctor experience, taboos of illness, medical language, representation of AIDS and HIV in TV and film and media. Rehana’s process with the young people asked urgent and critical questions around the work and roles within and for collaboration. The methodologies in the workshops drew on exercises and activities from theatre – Jo Spence was hugely influenced by The Worker’s Theatre Movement, Brecht, Augusto Boal and Dario Fo. They worked together for a year which culminated in an exhibition I, I, I, I and I which was took place at Studio Voltaire in 2013
The third commission was with Marysia Lewandowska who also spent time with Terry Dennett at the Jo Spence Memorial Archive, digitising parts of the archive for a project she titled The Reciprocal Archive. Marysia worked closely with designer Luke Gould to collaborate on a number of outcomes, which worked to open up the archive to processes of distribution and dissemination – releasing archival documents, images and writing through print, twitter and public talks. The Reciprocal Archive grew out of an enquiry into questions of the ownership of images and activated a platform for the sharing, dissemination and exchange of knowledge and ideas – encouraging others to participate in creating their own responses, by extension making the archive into a live, conversational resource.
Not Our Class was structured through a way of working that responded to artists’ practices, to ideas of pedagogy, collaboration, community and research – for me it provided a space for the alliance of different knowledges, methods, histories to be redirected collectively and it is something that has shaped my understanding and interest in equitable, fair, caring and ultimately politicised cultural practice.
It seems apt to look back at Amelie von Wulffen’s 2017 commission The misjudged Bimfi, full of queasy, unsettling paintings of homes and interiors.
Von Wulffen’s works pastiche canonical tropes with their ‘bad’ derivatives, deftly re-situating painterly traditions of still life, pastoral landscapes or portraiture in disquieting composite images. Her works make use of parochial and romantic subjects that would as readily be found in living rooms and lobbies at (now shuttered) museums: in particular, she has a proclivity for kitschy depictions of cats.
Her paintings have a surreal, claustrophobic quality. One particular work in the exhibition specifically discloses a sense of isolation. The painting, saturated in a syrupy pink light, portrays a woman lying on a chaise longue. She could be any number of painted Venus’s, reclining on a psychoanalyst’s couch, or just binge-watching Netflix on the sofa. The woman is hunched, her pink tinged eyes fixed on a point beyond our view. Her fingernails, yellow and coiled, protectively curl around her stomach and trail against the bed’s edge. The work is fraught and airless: underscored by a companion piece in the exhibition, The unjudged Bimfi – an installation comprising another day bed, piano and a confessional box.
Von Wulffen’s stuffy interiors continue in a series of paintings depicting modest, darkened rooms, some showing sombre dinner time gatherings or siblings practicing instruments. These scenes – all untitled – quickly explode into spectacles of bladdered demons, crying red-faced children, defecation, and the aforementioned (now poisoned) cats. Von Wulffen repeatedly returns to domestic settings and references to childhood but makes them weird, bilious and comic. She has previously described painting as “sentimental collage” – but there is something distinctly more sinister (and sticky) at its core.
Find out more about the exhibition here.
It’s a really interesting moment to think back on Monster Chetwynd’s (then Lali Chetwynd) performance-cum-expedition, The Walk to Dover, 2005: a seven day march from London to the coast, in which Chetwynd and her collaborators, including our ever-game Studio Voltaire director, Joe Scotland, dressed up as Dickensian street urchins, following in David Copperfield’s footsteps.
Chetwynd – whose energy and sense of experimentation has featured significantly within, and helped to shape, Studio Voltaire’s programme over the years – has always refused to be constrained by the given parameters of the gallery. This work was a pioneering example of SV’s way of working offsite, engaging with local communities, and extending possibilities for artists beyond the walls of the space. It represented a key point in shaping the productive blurring between so-called ‘educational’ or participatory and artistic practices for which the space has become known, and which is increasingly important within contemporary art.
I feel that The Walk to Dover also resonates, melancholically, right now both because of its sense of improvised freedom and outdoor roaming: in this weird and constricted moment when we could not undertake such a journey. But there’s also such an optimism that feels relevant to our shared future, especially in its attitude of minimal means to make art. With her low-fi, ad-hoc manner – typical of Chetwynd’s post-painterly and carnivalesque approach – the work demonstrates a fleet of foot, provisional attitude that feels newly necessary. And the work also raised real economic questions: drawing attention to the history of the Victorian debtors’ prisons in South London that feature in Dickens’s novels, Chetwynd set such history against our contemporary reliance upon cards that put people in perpetual, tragic, debt.
Tracing Copperfield’s journey from a Blacking Warehouse in London to Dover to stay with his aunt, Betsy Trotwood in which he foraged for food, the group, thus, attempted to live off the land, eating blackberries and nettles. The project culminated in the creation of a makeshift structure by the White Cliffs of Dover, representing Trotwood’s House, and the artist staged a celebratory kite-flying event with cream tea. In its particular mode of blurring art and life, this commission marked an important part of the “performative turn” in recent art, and opens up a sense of possibility for the future: how to travel, together, to subsist, in tune with our environment and to make – and mark – collective meaning from what we find.
I want to take everyone back to 2004. Up until that point, Studio Voltaire had only been available for hire, so the programme was a hotchpotch of members shows, artists paying to use the space and film hires. I know this because I held a studio there from 2001 until 2004 and it was at a time when members were able to work in the office against their studio rent. It was decided that going forward, Studio Voltaire would only do projects that they wanted to do, projects they believed in and those they felt needed to happen.
The show that stays in my mind from that time is TONIGHT. I remember it so well because for someone who had recently graduated from art school, it was a thrilling gangbang of over 50 artists filling up the space on a display structure designed by curator Paul O’Neil. I had never experienced such an energetic exhibition; one that was simultaneously a collection of individual artworks and an installation – a 360-degree experience – a Gesamtkunstwerk if you will. It was dynamic and exciting, and it seemed to embody everything I had learned at art school but not had the chance to experience yet.
In particular, there was a work by Kathrin Böhm called And Millions and Millions that just did all the things I thought an artwork needed to be doing; it was an ever-evolving back drop to the exhibition that the artist added to over the show’s duration. It consisted of colourful screen-printed posters that were cut out and displayed across the gallery walls. I am smiling thinking of that work, how it relates to the approach of Studio Voltaire and why I love it so much – always in flux and full of possibility – flexible, free and fun.
Find out more about the exhibition here.
1 April 2020