Neo Naturists at England & Co, London, Modern art in the Garden of Sudeley Castle, Gloucesteshire.
By Sophie Parkin.
Art and Nature, nature is art, art is nature or, as John Dryden wrote in 1667 — “By viewing nature, nature’s handmaid art, makes mighty things from small beginnings grow;”
Nature is inspirational and it doesn’t take much imagination to name a dozen painters who use nature as their starting point in art now, begin with Polly Morgan’s lovely taxidermied animals and work round, but The neo naturists were something quite different, a little clique of unique artists (Grayson Perry, the most famous, a Turner prize winner ceramicist and babydoll dress wearer par excellence – Wilma, surfer chic, and the two sisters Jennifer and Christine Binney)who used nature to pin point the ridiculous preciousness and pretentiousness of art and attire in the 1980s. By taking off their clothes and using themselves as laughing canvases they became daubed men and women, transformed into massive multicoloured faces on stomachs. Occasionally they wore the odd lobster or crab, still nature, but plastics such as clingfilm and cellotape were often used not to disguise but accentuate body parts and the absurd prevalence of clothes as artifice. Everything was about being outrageous then, I remember nobody blinked an eye when Stephen Linnard appeared at le Beat Route nightclub wearing an entire real zebras head balanced on his own, mane falling down his back. Fiona Dealey bound so tightly in polished leather that she wouldn’t have looked out of place as a working S&M Maitress, Pinkie in her milk-maid dirndels adrift from her sheep, Boy George wrapped in Westwood the way others were cloaked in Papal purple. I was no better (or worse) in two feet high turbans and wedding dresses. Fancy dress had taken over normal living, the façade whether humorous or high fashion, was everything. The Neo Naturists stripped all that away by being even more outrageous – baring all. Naked they were Anti-Page 3 girl pouting vixens, anorexic sex symbol models, Hot Gossip and self mutilating over serious performance art.
And pro-having fun, Amazonian women and Carry On Camping films. Behaving at all times like they weren’t meant to, they often got booed off stage for reading beatnik poetry and frying fishfingers in only their birthday suits plus a little paint.
“There were an alarming lack of groupies,” sighs Wilma now in retrospect. “I think people were afraid of getting their sheets dirty, and they didn’t have washing machines like we do now.”
They got back to nature not only by baring all but with much travelling of time and place the Nordic feel of Wilma’s Viking women the result of trips to Iceland, Whilst Jennifer Binney’s paintings echo the primeval-ness of Stonehenge and the white horse and the Abyss Giant.
Thank God it hasn’t taken as long as it has for French surrealist artist Louise Bourgeois to be rediscovered and have her first one woman show in London, 70 years (The Tate Modern, Oct 07). They have only had to wait 20 odd years, for this retrospective hot on the heels of the ICA Secret Public show of the underground art happenings of the 80s.
The Neo Naturists never seemed very underground to me, personally but then I was an art student and I thought mainstream galleries were being terribly conventional swept up in Thatcher’s Britain, and all that Conservatism. Only one man had the eye to see otherwise at that time, Mr James Birch with his first shows for Jennifer Binney, Grayson Perry and then Wilma. There was always a explosion of body painting performance in his little gallery in the New Kings Road and much drinking of red wine and scrumpy before rolling around on the floor in rousing choruses cheered on by legendary old man of surrealism, Conroy Maddox.
Eventually through public demand, the Neo Naturists almost went mainstream in their performances at fashion shows, or with Michael Clarke at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden(to a deafening silence of a single clap), and Derek Jarman’s book launches, I’m trying to think what must be the equivalent now, The Rubbishmen? Anarchic humorist absurd musicians reading tracts out about the Gin Riots of the 1700s whilst everyone shouts Rubbish at the stage.
Nobody seems to offend in the way that the Neo-Naturists did, just look at the video evidence at England & Co. (though it could do with a bit of editing, the photos and paintings are perfect) downstairs in the gallery. They were either 500 years too late or exactly on time to smudge us out of our ridiculous fancy dressing-up box ways before we choked on our own Lord Rochester like decadence.
That was on Thursday and I’d only just recovered before, Vanessa asked if I’d like to go to Henry VIII’s castle. Who doesn’t like castles? For girls they conjure up images of wimpole fairytale fancies, frogs, beasts and beauties and Glen Baxter drawings. I imagine castles for boys remind them of knights and jousting, slaying dragons and throwing your enemies in the dungeons. Do they? Well, the dungeons at Sudeley Castle were full when we got there. Full of fucking rats, (Sue and Tim’s) electrical lightening bolts (Paul Fryer), and beautiful pieces of misted light doves in smoke by Matt Collishaw. Once again summers grandest modern art show party had descended on Gloucestershire.
Skies were clouding over and mud and rain was Glastonbury, so I thought the sun would be shining like last year in the art party hosted by Mollie Dent Brocklehurst, but alas even Lords and Ladies are ordinary mortals and can’t order in the sun.
I went with the same charabanc I’d gone in April to the Dylan Thomas Festival with Vanessa Swedish Blonde, Art Carboot Sale Karen Ashton, but this time, Pam Hogg (Rock, Art, Designer star) came too in the back of the Roller. Out of the car, it was bloody freezing, even the Perrier Jouet so kindly provided on our arrival seemed too cold and all we wanted was a nice hot plate of food after the dungeons and before we tackled the gardens secreted with the darlings of the art world’s work hidden amongst topiary hedges, private chapels, lily ponds and lovers walks. Steel keyholes, and neon brains, vied with a magical Madonna, or a strip lit field and eerie sounds from Jane and Louise Wilson, it was all beautifully polished slick and professional.
Then there’s the delicious dinner and the Moroccan tent to pass out in, and several bars to drink dry, everything so beautifully orchestrated and more than enough interesting people to look at let alone talk to, amongst the most glorious of landscapes, art in nature. It was all very refined except for the wellies, essential for the rain and mud, and the distressing appearance of Barbours(Thomas Dane art dealer!). Then people got a little leary with the disco and vodka bar. I still can’t forget Tchaik Chassey, architect of a certain age, dancing in his white linen suit like a young Mick Jagger strutting away with a pneumatic teenage blonde. I thought the poor man was going to keel over with a heart attack. Art critic Louisa Buck go go danced in a modernist mini dress on the stage with Kathy de Monchaux, whilst Karen pretended to be a monkey and swung from the trees, and actress Catrina Boreman looked dressed for a medieval castle with a rose bush in her hair.
It all ended rather sedately for me, Pam however slept in the boot of the car and Vanessa slept on the back seat. By 3am I was tucked up in my own bed in a hotel, what it was called God knows and woke for breakfast and post prandial dissection of the night. I think the only thing that was missing (apart from my dearest beloved) was the Neo Naturists, just to whoop it up and bring a bit of, ‘you’re really not supposed to behave like that’, into the perfection of its grandness, but you can’t have everything, or can you?
Neo Naturists are at England & Co, 216 Westbourne Grove, W11 until July 21.
Sudeley Castle’s Rose-scented 15th century castle and gardens are open March til Oct, 10.30-5pm, daily.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophie Parkin has written six published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 27th, 2007.