Del Kathryn Barton paints for herself. Her works are a journey of self exploration without being autobiographical. Dominated by the fantastical, her figures and creatures explore the notion of human honesty, vulnerability and bodily experience. In a time where the digital predominates many facets of our daily lives, Barton is committed to the handmade; the “tangible surface that a hand has worked with”.
In the throes of preparing for a solo exhibition—Satellite Fade Out—at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, ARTIST PROFILE was welcomed into Barton’s studio to discuss the processes and practices behind her intriguing figures and bodies and, often otherworldly, art making.
I’m interested in your art-making process. Your works are extremely detailed compositions, heavily textured with marks and lines. Do you create a compositional structure before starting a work?
There’s a structure in terms of the methodology. I don’t think there’s a structure in terms of narrative and content. I never make preparatory drawings. There’s an important experiential aspect to my practice. And there are lots of contradictions. I tend to make big decisions fairly spontaneously.
Drawing is a recurring theme in your work. What role does that play?
I think it’s fundamental to my practice. My paintings have such a strong foundation in drawing, in my eyes. In a way, they’re painted drawings. The drawing that’s underneath is still present at the end. My works on paper or drawings, or however you want to talk about them, are just not filled in like my paintings are but it’s the same process.
Do you engage with source materials in that process? How does this feed into the practical making of a work? How does this influence and drive your practice?
I’m always looking at a myriad of source material and there are certain things I’ll always come back to; images of females and narratives with a resonance to what my lived experience has been. I’ll find a glimpse of something—or perhaps there’s 3 or 4 things—and I’ll just start a drawing. The way that I draw, there’s no turning back with the pens.
So the actual making of a drawing or painting is eventually disconnected from your reactions to whatever it is, or was, you were look at?
What I’m really wedded to is the courage to draw really badly; draw badly in a way that has a lot of emotional honesty and integrity. That’s what I hope for most, that the line has the same integrity as the feeling. [My work’s] not necessarily autobiographical but there’s an empathy or resonance—an inexplicable sympathy for something felt. It’s not a cerebral engagement but a physiological and emotional engagement, which I don’t analyse.
In saying that, there’s so much knowledge that needs to go into that. I start with the quality of line and the drawing can stay in that state. There’s this whole other state, or facet of my being that needs to suffer—in the best possible way—by going on this intricate and labour intensive, hard journey with a painting.
There is a lot of contradiction in your work that I think is very interesting. Your paintings contain controlled chance in the looseness of the drawn line of a figure and drips of paint, which co-exist alongside the methodical and repetitive decorative markings. How do you separate them and resolve that contrast?
It’s an interesting question. I feel that I need a varied experience in the process of making something. I think there’s a great discipline that comes out of these radical departures. There are days when I’m making the same mark over and over again and there is something very comforting about that but then I absolutely need to feel that I’m going to subjugate that surface and there’s this real irreverence and worry and anxiety. I’m a naturally anxious person, with a lot of adrenaline, so that kind of energy needs to go into the work as well, I think. It’s this really random and confusing and worrying—but comforting—journey I go on literally every day. It’s a nightmare but a wonderful nightmare!
You’re preparing for your show at Roslyn Oxley9 and this is your first solo show is a couple of years. How are you feeling?
I think because I’m so in the process at the moment it is a little bit hard to step back and analyse it. What I’m pretty good at doing is immersing myself so deep in the practice that when I’m this deep I’m questioning it on one level—but it’s more like this crazy ride I’m going on. To step back and look at it objectively is near impossible.
Is that a normal state for you when working on a piece or a show?
I think my ideal state is one of total immersion in the practice. It’s something that actually comes quite easily to me. The challenge for me is to pull out. I’ve been a mother now for 8 years so I feel I’ve developed skills to do that. That’s the challenge for me—switching on and off—because I think my most natural state is to be in the practice.
I’d like to discuss the figure, or body, in your practice. For me as a viewer, it plays such a central role. Where does the figure come from? What role does it play for you?
I actually feel it’s everything. I do move around it but I always come back to it and it’s always there. It’s a really big question for me. I have a sense that the biggest secrets of the universe are ‘discoverable’ within our own bodies. I’m not a religious person but I do look for meaning in life and I need to feel that. These big questions come back to how we inhabit our bodies with integrity and love and truth. And how do we give honesty to the world through our bodies—that’s what I’m exploring through my work.
I feel that I make works as an extension of who I am. Words are incredibly limited—I wish there was a word that encompassed ‘being-ness’ and ‘sexuality’ and ‘emotion-ness’ because that for me is a confluence of a body’s life.
John Currin talks about the paintbrush being an extension of his penis! And I could never feel comfortable in talking that way about my work but there’s this undying fascination with bodies and this undying desire to strip them back.
How much of a role does gender play on your mind then, given your bodies and figures are often gender ambiguous or intersex?
I don’t feel I have fully realised answers to this question. It’s a negotiation that plays out very readily and honestly in the practice. As a young child—and I don’t know where I would’ve had this notion— there was this idea in my mind that intersexual was the ideal state; something that’s as equally male and equally female.
Who are some of your influences? While the figures varies, I look at your work and I see references to early 19th century artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt in terms of a figure’s aesthetic.
For me, personally, I can talk about artists who’ve influenced my practice or I can talk about something more core. It’s so multifaceted. The real stayers though, are Louise Bourgeois—she’s my hero—but then someone like John Currin and his work.
I’m interested in the scale of your work. Again, contradiction is an ingredient here given your narrative and experience is deeply personal yet your paintings are often so large. What role does scale play for you?
I do make smaller paintings but I find a smaller pictorial space very challenging… I’m trying to think why that is. When I stand in front of a painting I want to have this palpable and physiological moment with it. For me, that’s at its most heightened when the canvas encompasses natural proportions to my body. I’m not saying my paintings do that but I’m saying when I go overseas and stand in front of paintings that really, really rock my world they’re slightly on a domestic scale. I feel that’s different with drawings.
And when you go overseas, what paintings or what style of painting are you looking at?
I look at everything but I find I draw most knowledge from old art—pre-renaissance; gothic art feels closest to what I’m trying to celebrate. I love detail, obsessed with detail, and obsessed with a really flat pictorial space. I realise these canons of art history were attempting to chisel out perspective and the illusion of 3D space but doing it with incredible flatness—I love that. I don’t know why I love that but I do. It goes back to what I was saying about the magic of a painted surface; chiselling out the illusion of a 3D reality doesn’t interest me at all. I love the flatness of a painted surface and I’m as much about celebrating the painted surface as I am about celebrating the narrative.
Compositionally, then, how do you approach detail? Your canvases are all of the above—full and layered and textured on a flat pictorial plane. How do you approach this and why?
I have these ideas with the repetitious mark making that something can be so busy and so dense that it almost becomes minimal at a certain point.
An optical overload, you mean?
That’s right, a sort of humming or vibrational quality. You’ve got to ask yourself often, ‘why do I paint?’ There are always these arguments about the ‘redundancy of painting’ and I’m very, very passionate about painting and I still feel the future of painting is limitless and full of hope.
I’m happy to hear you say that. Why is that your opinion?
The reason I feel that is you have this experience with this honest, vulnerable, handmade surface. Things that are made by hand really excite me. I feel, increasingly, there’s no comparison to how that can be realised and actualised on a tangible surface that a hand has worked with.
Is that a self referential look at painting? I think of Brecht’s theory of breaking the false reality— the fourth wall—of a play. Do you enjoy doing that with a painting, in terms of the flat surface?
Definitely—that’s a lot about the dripping and splattering that comes at the end. It’s a joyous reminder of that!
What ambitions do you have for the future? Where do you see yourself going?
It’s a big question. My biggest ambition would be to be represented by a really reputable gallery internationally. I’m always going to have issues with productivity because of the nature of my work. Given my constraints of family life I don’t have the time to promote myself locally and internationally. If it does happen then it’s going to happen randomly and the work will take me on a journey there.
As you get a bit older you start to feel the limitation that comes with aging but I want to stay really open. I suppose an artist like Louise Bourgeois who came into herself in her 60s and 70s, or Rosalie Gascoigne who is another incredible example of that—there are other women’s stories you can draw strength from.
Apart from aspirations on a career level, the real dream and hope—and I think it’s a knowing—is a deep gratitude. I feel very, very blessed as I feel I’m living my dream. As a young person, my dream was to exist and make art everyday and that’s what I’m doing.
Del Kathryn Barton is represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney