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Keeping her head above water.
Vivienne Binns' Surface Snaps mark a relatively new foray into photography. These are not finished art photographs, nor are they holiday snaps of anywhere recognisable; they are how-ever treasured images of one place, Brisbane Waters, which holds particular meaning for the artist. Yet the location is opaque, the images themselves are about a kind of visual ambiguity, an indeterminacy of seeing and of representing. The 'snaps', enlarged from small prints, are monochromatic and blurred; their surfaces shift and change, altered by the uncertainty of what is being seen. The photographs explore the surfaces of water. Shadows and reflections of boats, trees, seagrass and shallows chase over them, creating perversely beautiful effects: perverse because of the images' refusal to enter the swim of art photography. The 'natural' effects of wind and light on surfaces provide another means for Binns to explore the business of patterning, something which has been an enduring aspect of her practice. In using the camera consciously as an amateur to take snapshots which are blown up to the size of 'professional' prints, she is also addressing ideas which have consistently animated her work over nearly thirty years. Binns delights in teasing out notions of art and decoration , in redrawing the lines between amateur and professional, and in focussing her highly refined skills on apparently naïve or 'natural' subjects.
Vivienne Binns' interest in patterning is obvious in the other works in this exhibition. The small works on paper are derived from tapa designs, painted in acrylics onto patterned Japanese rice paper and pages from old Guardian Weekly newspapers-the airmail kind. As with the larger paintings on canvas, Binns' use of the tapa designs is referential rather than literal. In traditional tapa patterning, which the artist first encountered in Rarotonga, geometric designs are used in a way which maps religious and cultural concerns across the surface of the work. In Binns' paintings the patterns shift and change, tailing off into other things, their metamorphosis suggesting the artist's experience of the Pacific: a blending and clashing of cultures, an opaque sea of hidden histories and deeper meanings.
Incorporating images of colonial settlement and traces of early Australian modernism in these larger paintings, Binns experiments with the allusive possibilities of patterning. Her appropriation of tapa designs is neither pejorative nor 'merely' decorative-the works remain open-ended and mysterious, throwing up cultural references from the sublime to the banal. In some of the works on paper the newspaper text is clearly readable: fragments of scholarly reviews and obituaries surface underneath the patterns of the Pacific as if demonstrating the obscurity of its colonial history. Binns' personal iconography floats in amongst these traces too-amongst other things the presence of Vag dens and God's beard refer to her own discoveryof the Pacific and its significance in terms of a sense of personal place.
The title painting of this exhibition , Surfacing in the Pacific, is the boldest and bravest of Binns' explorations into the region . In reworking William Hodges' Tahiti Revisited (1776), a grand and luscious painting from Cook's second voyage, the artist celebrates the romantic vision of the eighteenth century but counters its imperialism with the added content of indigenous visual culture. In Binns' version the floor of the painting is an underlay of tapa patterning, receding into the landscape which is like a perfect exercise in one point perspective, its geometric design (incorporating a stylised Vag dens) resembling the tiled floor of a seventeenth century Dutch interior.
The faithfully rendered colours of Hodges' painting are disturbed by the pale tones of the tapa design and an unearthly yellow sky. The artist has inserted Frank Hinder's Bomber Crash (1940s) into the foreground, replacing
Hodges' awkward and unconvincing pagan idol. The effect is curiously appropriate, and calls up the presence of later imperial conflict in the Pacific-Hinder witnessed the crash while serving with the armed forces in New Guinea.
It is Binns' ability to draw such unlikely themes together in these latest endeavours which is their most compelling aspect. She plays exuberantly with history, experience and art in a way which brings to the surface of these works a sense of lively curiosity as well as a celebration of the sensuality of art-making, all art-making. Working within the politics of a postcolonial Pacific, Binns is less concerned with notions of historical truth than she is with the idea that things are tricky, unresolvable and contradictory.