Mad Love

July 22, 2017
Kathryn Del Barton's delirious stain through hair and flesh………and stain through fur and flesh………
Kathryn Del Barton's delirious stain through hair and flesh………and stain through fur and flesh………

Although we live in a world in which the ugliest forms of nationalism seem to be making a comeback there is one partial antidote: cultural exchange. As we become progressively more familiar with the art, music, film, fashion and cuisine of another country, the fear and suspicion of the Other is diminished. Japan, for instance, is no longer the country with which we fought a bloody war, it’s the land of sushi, anime and Issey Miyake.

Our appreciation of Japanese culture has been encouraged by government organisations such as the Japan Foundation. The Goethe Institute has done the same job for the Germans, the Alliance Francaise for the French, and so on. This tactic of cultural familiarisation is a lesson Australia has been slow to learn, but we finally seem to be getting the message.

This year the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), is promoting cultural ties with Germany, under a program titled Australia Now. In 2015 the featured country was Turkey, in 2016 it was Brazil. Next year it will be Japan’s turn.

While such a singular focus shouldn’t mean the rest of the world is neglected, Germany is an ideal choice for such a campaign. Time and again the Germans have shown their openness to the rest of the world, whereas Australian art in Britain is still subject to the patronising influence of old colonialism. The Germans have also shown an intense interest in Aboriginal art.

Berlin today is truly a world city, a meeting place for many cultures that has become a magnet for Australian artists. I’ve been there twice this year for two very different exhibitions. In January, for an exhibition of work by Cressida Campbell and Tim Storrier at CFA Gallery, and more recently for Mad Love, a group show selected by artist, Kathryn Del Barton, for the Arndt Art Agency.

The former was privately arranged, the second assisted by the Australian government. In the hierarchy of commercial galleries, CFA is a much bigger enterprise, but no international dealer has been more assiduous than Matthias Arndt in treating Australia as part of a global mix. It helps that he is married to an Australian, Tiffany Wood, but it’s chiefly because of a broad-ranging perspective that doesn’t stumble over national boundaries.

Dale Frank's Nigel, no further comment

Dale Frank’s Nigel, no further comment

The fact that DFAT is working with a dealer instead of a museum might be viewed as controversial but it’s part of a historical change that sees a breaking down of the boundaries between public and private. While public museums have become impoverished by the withdrawal of government funds, the contemporary art market has prospered, as a growing band of mega-rich go shopping for status symbols.

Art fairs have become a playground for the wealthy, while Biennales and other museum shows are increasingly used as showcases for works available for private sale. In such a milieu the sacrosanct aura of the art museum is much diminished, while dealers enhance their credibility by hosting shows of art historical significance.

Mad Love may be considered as a private/public partnership, in which DFAT and Arndt are united in their desire to promote Australian art in Germany. It tacitly acknowledges that the path to institutional success for contemporary artists today usually follows success in the marketplace.

Playing his part in the game, Arndt has taken an arm’s-length approach to the make-up of the show, asking artist, Kathryn Del Barton, to act as curator, choosing a theme and a group of participants.

Barton’s title, Mad Love, harks back to L’Amour Fou (1937) a novel by Surrealist commander-in-chief, André Breton. The delirious, disorientating quality of Breton’s prose, which values images and relationships over narrative, is a good match for Barton’s paintings, brimming over with psycho-sexual motifs that seem to have erupted spontaneously from the subconscious.

Her curator’s statement should give you the general impression:
“Body as pleasure. Body as machine. Body longing, always longing. Hungry body, filthy body. Body to run. Body to deny. Thinking body. Muscle Body. Body as instrument and song, as instinct towards life. Body light. Body dark. Evolutionary body, dinosaur body. Plastic body. Colour body. BODY as unmitigated surges of light and energy, just briefly, but oh, such, such love……… mad, mad love.”
There are two of Barton’s paintings in the show: and stain through hair and flesh………and stain through fur and flesh……… and hard wet (both 2017). A trademark blend of perversity and kitsch, they feature big-eyed girls in colourful, hyper-decorative settings. In the former it looks as if the heroine is contemplating doing something unspeakable with a Chihuahau.
The other artists are Brook Andrew, Pat Brassington, Dale Frank, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Patricia Piccinini, Ben Quilty and Paul Yore. It may not be a tasteful selection, but it’s eye-catching.
The late Sally Gabori was not setting out to shock and offend when she painted her bright canvases, although they feel incredibly raw alongside most other forms of indigenous art. Brook Andrew, by contrast, is represented by two enlarged archival photos of indigenous people from his Gun-metal grey series of 2007. The large scale insists on the significance of figures previously treated as ethnographic specimens.

Thundi, by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori

Thundi, by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori

Of the other artists, Yore makes quite an effort to be offensive with his embroidered slogans that express his displeasure with Australian society. Frank now covers his canvases in rubber fright masks, but would still like us to view these works as “paintings”. Nithiyendran’s ceramic sculptures are less overpowering on a small scale, but still edgy.
One could make a more respectable case for Quilty, Brassington and Piccinini, whose work suggests a range of themes to be explored, but space doesn’t permit such an indulgence.
The only unifying factor is Barton’s taste for an art that is bright, vivid, and in-your-face – which is to be preferred to the earnest explorations of identity that have become a preoccupation for so many contemporary curators.
As a window onto Australian art Mad Love gives the misleading impression of a wildly extroverted nation. The Berliners who crowded out the gallery on opening night might be shocked to discover the extent to which Barton and her chosen artists are the exception rather than the rule.

Mad Love
Arndt Art Agency (A3), Berlin
6 June – 29 September, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July, 2017