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.