Test-patterns from borrowed lives

ART AND LIFE Vivienne Binns, LUMA, La Trobe University Museum of Art, Bundoora, until Friday DANIEL BOYD KalimanRawlins, Ellis Street, South Yarra, until September 1

ART AND LIFE

Vivienne Binns, LUMA,

La Trobe University Museum of Art,

Bundoora, until Friday

DANIEL BOYD

KalimanRawlins, Ellis Street,

South Yarra, until September 1

WHEN conceptual art is brilliant, it's unrepeatable. An example is the idea of Vivienne Binns in the 1970s for two women to swap mothers. This diabolical invention arose between Binns and a friend: instead of visiting their respective mothers each week, they exchanged the commitment to visit each other's, as if the proper daughter.

The motif of the swapped mothers brings up images of flipped identities and confused relationships, like in a play by Goldoni. But far from the mistakes and tricks of theatre, the practical virtue of this maternal transfer is that neither mother is taken for granted. The pseudo-daughter gets the stories that she's never heard before. She thus builds matriarchal history and enhances the feminist legacy.

The poetic side in the scenario that makes it unrepeatably ingenious is that, despite the proposal, we actually cannot change our mothers. The imaginative ruse defies biology. The daughters swap mothers by arrangement; but nothing changes in their personal history of love and jealousy. Mothers are essentially unique and not interchangeable, even if some of their IP can be shared through inter-generational conversation.

This level of mordant pathos is hard to sustain and impossible to exhibit.

An intimate retrospective exhibition of Vivienne Binns can be seen at LUMA, which sensitively expresses the delicate project of translating conceptualism into the robust decorative painting for which Binns is best known.

Curated by Penny Peckham, the exhibition Art and life reveals how Binns has engaged in family and community projects, teaching enamelling techniques and touching the popular nerve of domestic design that democratised her work. Her elaborate canvases "touch upon the issue of why geometric abstract painting has been highly regarded, while patterning . . . is usually dismissed as unimportant".

We see Binns experimenting with visual language, appropriating motifs and textures from linoleum and tiles as well as photographs. Sometimes she floats one kind of pattern over another, as with the raster of dots in a photograph that produces a clash with another medium, like the slick continuity of enamel. The results are visually intriguing and thoughtful.

My only criticism of the interpretation is the emphasis on autobiography, which I feel is missing from the work. The paintings actually tell us very little about the artist, including when the titles hint at the origins of the patterned sources that Binns appropriated.

Even if the information includes the room or the name of the donor, I think we're drawing a long bow to say, like Peckham, that "this tells us something of Binns' own life".

Nevertheless, Peckham is right in spirit: the works grapple with having something to say in an idiom which has nothing to say; and this expressive paradox mirrors other social realities in which women have been represented as decoratively loquacious while being politically silenced.

Binns' legacy is not necessarily stylistic but social.

She gives a priceless cue to contemporary artists like those who are gathering for A Dinner Party: setting the table at West Space September 3-16, which also features fellow traveller Janine Burke, as well as a knitting circle organised by Kate Just.

A substantial part of Binns' career involved making cultural contact with the Pacific region, which is very much a work in progress for Australia.

We have deep reasons to contemplate our neighbours and their colonial experience, a project that informs a curiously patterned exhibition by Daniel Boyd at KalimanRawlins.

As with Binns in the 1970s, Boyd creates an image from a photographic source and then lets the lights and darks interact with a scheme of dots, in his case recalling Aboriginal desert painting. But the anthropological data that Boyd unearths are not the images of the noble savage, but the 60-year-old Matisse who, like Gauguin before him, made a Tahitian expedition for aesthetic purposes.

The venerable painter is not the only subject; rather, he joins other exhibits, like a primitivist vase by Picasso and an ancestral mask. Most curiously of all, when overwritten with a somewhat transparent dot, they resemble a stiff but shimmering antique mosaic, the spotty lingua franca of pixellated construction.

robert.nelson@monash.edu