‘The Highway is a Disco’ is the largest exhibition of Del Kathryn Barton’s multi-form practice to date, comprising 150 pieces including a 10-metre long painting, film, textiles, collage and at the foot of your love (2017), a sculptural tribute to her late mother, who she says was ‘an innate part of the fabric of my universe’. It’s not a surprising sentiment from the artist who fuses totality and the minutiae of personal story in her portrayal of women, self and nature. Her compositions suggest a plane of perception that is in between here and there, human and animal, life and death. The artist shared ‘In many ways I can’t explain my compulsion to endlessly return to these big elemental beats… Learning to more astutely edit through the noise and toxicity of a lot of contemporary living has been a life-preserving necessity.’
Barton has won the Archibald Prize twice since 2008 and in that time has arguably held the mantle as one of Australia’s most admired artists. Her style is warped. The rainbow and psychic force that permeates each work is consciously flamboyant but also signals abandon. Many of Barton’s compositions pulsate from a centre point as a mandala would, with a woman at the core radiating colour and shapes which grow like the wet diffusion of a watercolour or a blossoming flower. In of pink planets (2014) and openly song (2014), contemporaneous cues embolden the female forms, like a portrait or icon from centuries past. Core motifs such as spider web, petals, feathers and confetti dots entice and threaten to entrap. Her erogenous symbols are not limited to a wellspring of nipples and orifices, both circular and almond shaped that seem to suck and expel, but extends to wide eyes. These eyes, to which you might ascribe a spiritual meaning, draw our attention to the gaze of the subject and our own compulsion to look. So, is art of this fecund-kind indicative of ‘letting go’ or bringing Barton closer to something? ‘This is an interesting and beautiful question,’ she said. ‘I often speak of dichotomous and contradictory energies in describing the disciplines within my creative life. So, within this framework I would have to say that so often, in the act of making, I am almost always attempting to ‘let go’ in order to be closer and more present to the possibilities in the work. In essence, what I am trying to say is that my creative practice demands total commitment to unknowable outcomes. This daily journey is electrifying, exhausting, scary and full of risk.’
Barton maintains a childlike curiosity while exploring adult themes. Absurd and delightful fantasy carries through her work; in the painting sing blood-wings sing (2017) she reimagines the 1963 coming of age song ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ with female characters. In RED (2016), Cate Blanchett plays a mother, re-enacting the redback spider’s deadly mating ritual. In both instances Barton puts the strength and complexity of women at the fore. And, while some may see this articulation of identity as an essentialist view of gender, it doesn’t peacock as definitive. Barton shared, ‘It has always been very important to me to personally own the narrative in my work as erupting from my experience of inhabiting a woman’s body. These narratives are my offerings as a woman, sometimes autobiographical, sometimes not, but always inspired by my lived, felt, dreamed, lost experiences. I feel strongly about ‘the sisterhood’ and celebrate the belief that every woman’s journey in her body is uniquely hers.’
Indeed, the artist presents women as porous, changeable and self-determined. The openings that echo genitalia go beyond titillation. As plants spring up and thrive from these cavities we are reminded about life cycles and the poetry of womanhood – one that can be miraculous, deadly and inert.
Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Until 12 March, 2018