Saturday, June 7, 2008
Del Kathryn Barton / The Age / Saturday 31 May 2008
Winning the Archibald, Australia's prestigious portraiture prize, did little to silence Del Kathryn Barton's self-doubt, writes Gabriella Coslovich. Childhood is an intensely powerful time, its influence lingers on long after we have shed our milk teeth, crayons and soft toys. For Del Kathryn Barton, this was particularly so. Her enchanted and strange childhood would indelibly shape her life. Back to that idyllic and testing time can be traced so much of who she has become and the art she makes. Barton lived on an angora goat farm with her two siblings and her parents, eccentric teachers who swapped an urban existence in Sydney's Castle Hill for the rural setting of East Kurrajong, buying a rundown, white-ant-ridden, crumbling old place that they demolished and took 15 years to rebuild.
"It was an odd, magical, crazy, beautiful childhood," Barton says. "We lived in a tent for two years, then a cottage, and I was the first member of the family to move into the house and there were no walls, and I had a horse."
Magical though it was, her childhood was marred by a mysterious psychological disturbance which doctors could not diagnose and which she called her "thing". "My thing is happening," she would tell her mother, as she lapsed into the frightening mental state. Barton rarely speaks about this childhood torment. Almost too soon, we have slipped into delicate territory. Sitting at her kitchen table, sipping coffee, Barton pauses as she searches for the words to explain her "thing".
"I think I was a deeply phobic child and I had severe anxiety that manifested in these weird episodes where I would hear voices and my vision would do very strange things, the light would shudder, or it was too bright and I had to close my eyes. It was terrifying, actually, and not something I could control."
Drawing compulsively was her way of dealing with "the thing". When the young Del drew, she could lose herself, without losing her mind, and "the thing" could not touch her.
"The act of drawing was where on one level I felt safest as a child, but also most engaged, always this feeling of incredible potentiality, which is a really electric place to be," she says.
Barton has the blessing and burden of being one of Australia's most collectible artists. Her works have been setting record prices at auction, topped by the $162,000 paid for Please...don't...stop at Bonhams and Goodman last November. Her recent Melbourne show at Karen Woodbury Gallery sold out before it opened, with prices ranging from $20,000 to $65,000. Several works, including the vast painting The Whole of Everything, and a suite of drawings, was picked up by one of her most high-profile fans, the eccentric Tasmanian collector David Walsh, who will be opening the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart late next year. With its sex and death theme, MONA is the
perfect home for Barton's paintings.
But her works are not for everybody - idiosyncratic, graphically sexual, animalistic, other-worldly, in your face, sublime, beautiful and disturbing, they polarise people. Some collectors want the status that goes with having a Barton, but not the overt sexuality, the open-legged girls casually displaying their rippling, ripe pudendas, the multi-breasted goddesses with their attendant familiars.
"We get a lot of clients who want a Del Barton but they don't want tits or vaginas," says her Melbourne dealer, Karen Woodbury.
To meet Barton and to listen to her talk about her art, her life, her fears and joys is to deepen one's appreciation for her work and the authenticity of its genesis - the anatomical flamboyance of her paintings is not gratuitous. Barton's layered, complex, talismanic paintings are not a contrivance; they emanate, to borrow the title of one of them, from "the whole of everything", the whole of her. The works are subtly or
subconsciously autobiographical, at times alluding to some of her own struggles to come to terms with body and mind, at others simply reflecting her love of pattern and texture - a love that has an uncanny link to her past.
To those who are not avid followers of contemporary art, Barton would be best known as the winner of this year's Archibald Prize, with the painting, You are what is most beautiful about me, self portrait with Kell and Arella. Featuring her two children, Kell, now 5, and Arella, 3, the family portrait is less provocative and confronting than much of Barton's oeuvre. But it has its own tensions and riches. Kell and Arella are straddled between their mother's thighs, emerging from them, creating a totem, a potent trinity, redolent of Hindu paintings, and symbolic of the cycle of life. At the
totem's head is Barton, in her trademark designer glasses, a staunch protective spirit, her arms outstretched, above the outstretched arms of her children, the three of them forming a multi-armed, multi-headed deity. The painting will be on show in regional Victoria from today, when an exhibition of Archibald finalists opens at the Bendigo Art Gallery. Eventually, the work will hang in Barton's house, probably at the top of the stairs. And yet, when she finished the work, Barton considered it a failure. Winning the Archibald made no difference to her harsh self-assessment. "Starting (a painting) is effortless and so joyous and I think I am really lucky that way. Finishing is so tough for me because I'm always disappointed."
Others are not so severe in their judgements. Later, when I visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see her Archibald winner in the flesh, I overhear an older woman in a wheelchair marvelling at the sight of it: "Gee, there is so much work in that, so much work. Those eyes are fantastic. It's just amazing, what an imagination. So decorative. She can't have done much sleeping, I don't think. She's got a Sturt desert pea in there."
The first thing Barton did after winning the Archibald was cancel her next show. Set to open at Sydney's Kaliman Gallery in December, it has now been postponed to May next year. Barton's astounding popularity, now driven at least in part by the promise of making a sure-fire investment, has created an immense workload and pressure. Even though she is a confessed workaholic, Barton needed time to reflect and some respite from her astoundingly labour-intensive technique. Her energy had become "contracted", she says, not a good space from which to create.
Barton guards her privacy and rarely gives interviews. I am fortunate enough to be invited into her decayingly grand home in Sydney's grungy inner west. It is a large, two-storey, ramshackle Victorian with a gently sloping backyard, enclosed by a tall wooden fence. She lives here with her two children and partner, Chris, with whom she shares some traits - they are both workaholics and love the refuge of home - and some differences. He is a cerebral numbers man who works in finance, she the emotional artist.
"We couldn't be more different and I think that's why we're so happy together," she says.
The home they have made together is warm and inviting and filled with an eclectic collection of contemporary art. In the lounge room hangs an extremely magnetic photo. It features a young mother in what appears to be a tribal ethnic costume, a multicoloured, multilayered outfit, and wearing an enormous, fabulous headdress. The woman is holding a baby. Behind her is an intoxicating background of clashing colours and textures, diverse fabrics, wild, knitted asymmetrical strips, misshapen scarves,
creating a delirious tapestry. It slowly dawns on me that it is Barton herself in the photo in the exotic costume, holding Arella. But it is the story about that extraordinary knitted background that is truly evocative - the photo holds a remarkable key to Barton's own work.
The knitting, Barton explains, is the work of her late beloved grandmother, whom she called Baba. Her name was Nancy Barton and hers was an arduous life. She grew up in Tasmania and married late, to a hard man, after having nursed her dying mother. Nancy raised three children, one of them Barton's father. In the last 10 years of her life she developed dementia and would sit all day crocheting and then, as her hands stiffened, knitting.
"I lived with her for two of the three years I was at art school and she was a total scream. A diabolically hard-core Christian but very liberal in her own way . . . I have bags and bags of her wonderful creations, and her colour sense I find inspirational. It actually blows my mind," Barton writes, in a later email.
"I feel very sad writing this stuff down. She was full of spirit and song in a hard life. She was very loved within the church community and people just gave her bags of random wool. She picked up a lot from fetes. She was a crazy bowerbird. My work has in part always attempted to celebrate the history of women's craft and art making."
Barton's paintings, with their elaborate, decorative surface, continue in the path of Baba. She reclaims for women a wild, intuitive, supernatural space.
Some critics have panned Barton's works for being overly decorative. When she reads such things, Barton takes solace in the fact that one of her favourite artists, the British Chris Ofili (who gained notoriety for his painting The Holy Virgin Mary, featuring elephant dung and magazine cut-outs of genitalia), is also a prize decorator.
"You couldn't get a more decorative aesthetic than that, and yet the work is really hard-core. "That's when I'd open my book on Chris Ofili and say 'I love you, Chris
Ofili, and thank you'."
Barton never doubted she would be anything other than an artist, and she persisted, despite her father's disapproval. Her only moment of doubt occurred at art school but that had more to do with the method of teaching than her own lack of faith or ability. She had hoped university would give her practical artistic skills. This wasn't exactly the case. She also found it hard to engage with the hard-drinking, carousing student life.
"I left home and it was like, OK, I don't take drugs, I don't drink alcohol, I want to work really hard because I want to be an artist, and that just really wasn't the culture at art school, it was about going out and being crazy. "I'd just been through a childhood of working out that I'm actually not crazy . . . alcohol, and anything that altered my consciousness, was terrifying to me."
Much of her technique was developed after she left university, through a rigorous and painful journey of experimentation, she says. She had to discover how different types of paints work, how gouache dries and leaves a velvety surface, how watercolour dries in a luminous way and reflects the light. She needed to learn how to layer different types of paints without them cracking. She found, too, that to obtain the immaculately flat surfaces that she loves, lightweight polyester canvas was best - but presented its own problems because of the scale of her works.
"You don't get taught any of this at art school. Well, I didn't. It has taken 15 years of experimentation in the studio to get to this point." Continuing to experiment is of utmost importance, especially now that she is in mid-career: "That's the point that works can become very mannered, and that is death for me."
Barton's paintings must be seen up close to be fully appreciated. Their surface is an intricate maelstrom of obsessive mark-making - from the meticulous dotting of her backgrounds to the minute detailing of the hair or fur on her female figures, every strand drawn out, every vein on a leaf, every erotic tendril of a flower. Her canvases are an orgy of colour and movement which somehow retain a compositional balance. The paintings are so labour-intensive that, following Woodbury's advice, Barton has taken on a studio assistant, Lauren Brincat, an artist in her own right.
"After the last show, Karen said to me, 'You're going to kill yourself', and I really was suffering from a lot of back pain."
Barton's studio, in a large, light-filled room on the ground floor, is like an insect's nest, or a bowerbird's, or a witch's coven. Signs of compulsive activity are everywhere, the stuff of spells and alchemy. Paint runs down the walls like psychedelic rain, the floor is a splattered colour-field, jars are filled with beads of shiny black and sunburst orange, baskets crammed with tubes of paint. Reference books lie about the floor and sink into fusty armchairs: The Lyrebirds of Sherbrooke, Wildflowers of Western Australia, Book of Australian Native Orchids. Polaroid collages are stuck to the walls - photos of Barton's coolly angelic son Kell, naked among a forest of oriental lilies.
Propped up against the walls are massive works in progress that almost scrape the lofty ceilings of her home. The works are signature Barton, canvases populated with women of alien beauty, eyes as glassy as a lagoon and as unfathomable as the ocean, staring blankly, as if in ecstasy, untouchable, untameable. Her doe-eyed girls are self-contained, they do not meet the viewer's eye. For all their overt sexuality they are not objects for men to ogle.
"It's not about the male gaze at all, that's the very last thing that it is." But why are they so sexual? "I could only give a very complex answer to that. It's lots of things. It's definitely about revealing the longing in me to be that empowered physically and to be that comfortable in my own skin, which I'm not."
Barton has spoken before of her former struggles with an eating disorder. Her paintings are partly about women's ambivalent attitudes towards their own bodies - however, she emphasises that her works are not "political". "What I'm most haunted by, in a way, is why can't I actually feel beautiful? What has happened in life that I can't feel that way, even though my partner adores me.
"Of course, I would not want you to misunderstand me. I have moments in the studio when I'm feeling very beautiful, because I'm in my body and comfortable in my skin, in that moment."
Archibald Prize 08 is at the Bendigo Art Gallery until June 29.