Kathryn Del Barton: The Highway is a Disco

January 20, 2018
The many faces of Del Kathryn Barton.. 'In another land'

A friend in Melbourne thinks he’s found the key to the mysterious pictures of Del Kathryn Barton: Smarties. His theory goes that in the formative years of childhood Del had a desperate, unrequited desire for Smarties. As a result she has been compelled forever after to fill her paintings with these small, brightly coloured lollies.

Looking at Barton’s extravagant, hyperdecorative, hypersexualised canvases in her exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Smarties theory was growing on me. It was at least a change from the post-structuralist verbiage which is often invoked to explain this work. It would be simpler to say Barton has a vivid imagination.

Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco is the first museum survey for an artist who has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past decade. It’s also another instance of a Sydney artist being given a major exhibition by a Victorian art museum. This time last year I was writing about Bronwyn Oliver’s show at Tarrawarra in the Yarra Valley, so you can see Sydney hasn’t become more proactive over the past twelve months.

Barton owes much of her celebrity to dual Archibald Prize victories in 2008 and 2013. If we were to judge artistic achievement by the magnitude of prizes alone this would make Barton Australia’s greatest ever female portraitist, but if truth be told she’s hardly a portraitist at all.

Barton’s pictures are so stylised that anyone who sits for a portrait had better be prepared to be transformed into a irridescent, bug-eyed line drawing embraced by exotic animals, cast adrift on a sea of dots. In other words, don’t expect psychological realism. Barton is less concerned with capturing a sitter’s personality than with surrounding him or her with images that suggest – in her own words – “a varied personal symbology”. As a technique it’s virtually medieval.

Barton was a controversial Archibald winner in 2008 and she still manages to polarise audiences. Portraiture plays only a small role in a body of work filled with imaginary beings, exotic animals and plants. Her images appear to spring from the subconscious, giving form to deep-seated fears and fantasies. In of pink planets (2014), the central figure looks like a maternal warrior with five breasts instead of two. With her legs covered in scales or feathers she seems to be merging with the natural world. A snake and a kangaroo are shown clinging to her limbs. If one wanted to take the post-structuralist path this could be seen as a perfect example of “Becoming-Animal”, a trope Deleuze and Guattari prised out of the writings of Franz Kafka.

Del Kathryn Barton, 'of pink planets'

Del Kathryn Barton, ‘of pink planets’

There are a lot of metamorphoses in Barton’s paintings, but the transformations are surely based on instinct rather than theory. Her ever-present theme is ‘motherhood’, which appears in the most surprising incarnations. She treats the business of sex, procreation and nurturing as if it were something straight out of Game of Thrones. The everyday occurrences of a woman’s life are transmuted into a heroic quest, with mothers and daughters turned into characters from science fiction.

In I’m going through changes (2016), the heroine’s sprouting breasts suggest either puberty or pregnancy. The snake-like coils that protrude from her bouffant hair-do are reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Everywhere in this show we find a combustible mixture of high and low culture – a mutant figure from the Viennese Secession meets the title from a Black Sabbath song. The collages from the voluminous series Inside another land, are delirious combos of the female body and huge flowers. They don’t just suggest sex, they positively scream it.

Barton’s admirers are impressed by the fecundity of her imagination, by the colour and detail that distinguishes her canvases. They love the fact that her works are aggressively feminine, dripping with polymorphous sexuality. To her detractors she is more cartoonist than painter, trapped in a terminal adolescent fantasy. Her drawing style is so thin and spidery, so lacking in substance and contour that it makes a mockery of everything one learns in the life drawing class.

To appreciate these paintings one has to accept Barton’s freewheeling attitude toward her influences. It doesn’t require an art historian to recognise her debt to Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Dada collagist, Hannah Hoch. Some of her recent erotic drawings with the brush have echoes of Brett Whiteley. Her use of dots is reminiscent of indigenous painting.

One could go on spotting such borrowings but what’s important is the use Barton makes of this material. She is not simply copying other artists but adapting ideas and devices that suit her own purposes. All artists do this but few are less concerned with concealing their sources. Barton gives the impression she practises a form of free association, working spontaneously with no need to trumpet her own originality.

In being open to everything she has produced a highly recognisable style. It’s complex, excessive, and probably difficult for her to explain. One could say she is seeking a cornucopia – the classical symbol of abundance applied to a contemporary art scene in which all styles and approaches seem to co-exist.

The artist alongside 'at the foot of your love'

The artist alongside ‘at the foot of your love’

Barton’s cornucopia extends to the media she uses which includes drawing, painting, collage, photography, sculpture, installation, and most recently film. In the centre of the exhibition one finds at the foot of your love, a three-dimensional construction that features 20 metres of silk covered in 270 printed panels, tethered to a gigantic conch shell carved from huon pine. The work is intended as a tribute to the artist’s mother who died last year. The combination of diverse materials, a painfully personal subject, and grandiose scale is overwhelming, but the symbolism – a vulva-like shell and a monstrous handkerchief – is odd to the point of incoherence.

Cate Blanchett goes mad with the scissors in RED

Cate Blanchett goes mad with the scissors in RED

This is not the case with RED, Barton’s 15-minute film starring Cate Blanchett, based on the female redback spider which eats the male after impregnation. It’s a bold, savage piece of symbolist movie-making that never flags for a second. A film is always a collaboration between director, cast and crew, but Barton has stamped her own vision on this short feature. It’s the complete arthouse package, filled with startling, primal images. In RED those who are impatient with the mannerism of Barton’s paintings will discover a filmmaker that knows how to go for the jugular.

Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
17 November, 2017 – 12 March, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January, 2018