Framed against a starlit sky, two female figures with feathered hair and large, limpid eyes sit astride blue and purple kangaroos. Their lush, naked bodies are stark white against a vibrant canvas of marks, lines, and dots. They stare out of pictorial space into an unknown distance, with their detached gazes separated from the viewer’s own perusal of them. Disengaged from us, their distance forms a boundary that renders Del Kathryn Barton’s imagined, pluralistic universe enticing, but inaccessible and impenetrable.
Out of this universe, a particular aesthetic emerges: a deconstructed anime style of illustration that pulls together tribal and natural elements so tremulously sensual that it has viewers scrambling for adjectives to describe its manic, strange beauty. The Highway Is a Disco, Barton’s first solo debut out of her native Australia at ARNDT Gallery, is a testament to this eccentricity. Featuring large-scale paintings finished with acrylic and gouache, the works on show are few—and new—but ocularly challenging in their numerous fine ink lines, and virtually cenotophobic in their aversion to blank space. Her visual language is articulated in jeweled shades of pink, red, and yellow, and fleshes out some part of the female psyche that is polymorphous, sensual, desiring, and desirable.
The Cosmos Is Disco Lust (2015) is a luminous garden of delights where beast and (wo)men entwine, elaborately laid out against patterns and textures that seem to reference the fine dot work and bright, contrasting colors of Australian deserts found within aboriginal painting. Breathtaking in the minutiae offered for visual consumption, no part of the canvas is left untouched in this strange world of hybrid images of Lolita-esque characters with multiple pairs of breasts, fey creatures, and botanical entities. It is a universe that conflates an unmistakable erotic undercurrent where only women (who may not be entirely human) and nature coexist, flourishing in the stark absence of masculinity.
Otherworldly and strange, Barton’s works call to mind the aesthetic visions of fin de siècle painters, meshed with the mythic drawings of indigenous art. The Australian bush is, after all, the place of Barton’s childhood, a foundational experience that is constantly reworked into variations on a theme in her oeuvre, a psychological impetus as well as a physical outpouring of her foundational years translated onto a two-dimensional surface. “Whenever I am in the bush at night,” Barton says, “it is properly dark. It is dark in a deep, deep way that takes you psychologically to a much deeper place, in terms of dreaming. That is a real gift and a real sensory reprieve so that other, deeper subterranean spaces open up.” The night sky thus unsurprisingly became Barton’s canvas, on which is drawn a mesmeric, mystical universe that thrives on her personal system of signs and values.
Inside Another Land (2015) recalls the biting but anachronistic aesthetic of second-wave feminist art that fought to divorce feminine identity from biological function. Presented as a series of collages of the female form, flowers resembling vulvas and splayed legs come together against psychedelic backgrounds of halftones, polka dots, and shape-based repeated motifs. Body parts are prominently on display here, obscured and distanced strategically by the placement of petals and buds, paying homage to the surrealist and symbolist traditions while interrogating gendered and culturally embedded notions of femininity, desire, and the male gaze. An oddly literal elucidation of the enduring patriarchal fantasy of the objectified, faceless female body, it is a jarring departure from the doe-eyed, candied beauty of Barton’s other works that offer no clear narratives of subjugation or resistance.
Inside Another Land, however, isn’t the only installation that stands so starkly in contrast to the ethereally sensual and figurative paintings in the show. Flowers (2015) and To Feel (2015) are sculptures that tangentially contemplate issues of motherhood and domesticity. A generous reading of these works would locate them in the repetitive discourse of womanhood and empowerment. Barton’s reworking of Oscar Wilde’s subversive fairytale The Nightingale and the Rose—of a nightingale’s unacknowledged sacrifice for a student’s unrequited yearning for his professor’s daughter—focuses on the aesthetic qualities of the fairytale’s archetypal settings and characters, infusing visual qualities to the abstract, universal themes of beauty and loss.
But if this is also a showing of Barton’s forays into sculpture and digital media, it’s also here where the show’s curatorial framework falters, the apparent arbitrariness of these displayed works operating against what has been, up until now, a cohesive exposition of Barton’s rhetoric of beauty and femininity. They make for interesting viewing, even if their individual exuberance is dimmed by details that ultimately do not sufficiently persuade the viewer to look past them.
Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway Is a Disco is on view at ARNDT Singapore through December 6, 2015.
Andrew Stephens, “Del Kathryn Barton brings the bush alive in NGV exhibition,” October 10, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/del-kathryn-barton-brings-the-bush-alive-in-ngv-exhibition-20141003-10pmho.html#ixzz3qgXXuf5m