Del Kathryn Barton: electro orchid

Wander a little further into the magical world of the two-time Archibald winning artist.
Annie Murney
Published on November 18, 2014


The rich and vibrant paintings of Del Kathryn Barton are immediately recognisable. The two-time Archibald winning artist is well-loved by Australian art enthusiasts and well-known for her heavily textured portraits of celestial femme fatales. Creating vast networks of intricate patterns, there's an obsessive level of detail in Barton's work that is simply absorbing.

Her latest body of work, electro orchid, ventures into new territory. While there are a couple of her typically elaborate and large-scale portraits, there's also a lot of experimentation in this Roslyn Oxley9 show. Barton seems to be exhibiting the various processes of her practice, stripping back the glittering layers of folkloric femininity.

Drawing is the crux of Barton's practice. Looking closely at her smaller works, there is something sad and slightly sinister to many of them. She draws ordinary objects (mainly metal utensils) in strange formations, giving them a mystical quality. She also uses thin black lines create the contours of angular bodies, many of which look skeletal, broken, and mummified. There are bald, oversized heads and long, spindly fingers that turn into tree roots. Unlike the bright colours of her bigger works, depicting subjects with power and gravitas, these lonely figures float in space.

With so much emphasis placed on visuals, the power of words is a part of Barton's practice that isn't often addressed. Nonetheless, the titles of her paintings are like micropoems and are frequently embedded in webs of detail. Some of them read as prayers or incantations, for instance, may I bloom primitive and what flows through you also flows through me. There is a devotional and self-sacrificing quality to these phrases.

On the other hand, Barton has produced a series of word paintings using bright pink gouache. Smeared and dripping, it's a messy finish when compared to the controlled execution of her portraits. But the evocative pairing of words speaks to the core themes of Barton's practice, which bring about a kind of shameless sexuality in a Garden of Eden environment.

Of course, the eye is an important and recurring symbol throughout Barton's practice. You'll find eyes lodged into bodies where they don't belong and reproduced like wallpaper. One of her works borrows imagery from The Wizard of Oz, featuring the famous red slippers dangling over a vortex of eyes. It may be a slice of sentimentality, but Barton doesn't need to borrow from well-tilled fairytales and Hollywood classics. Her unique brand of mythology is powerful enough.

While some of Barton's portraits evoke Marie Antoinette-like aristocracy, there are other more androgynous, unidentifiable characters. It's as if the fluid spectrum of sexuality has been mapped through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and infused with David Bowie. This exhibition packs a lot into a small space (and it's possibly a little cramped). In any case, Barton's created magical world and distinctive painterly style is constantly alluring.


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