Del Kathryn Barton

Del Kathryn Barton’s works transcend the visual vocabulary of the everyday, by drawing us into the ever-expanding space of her imagination.

“We live in an overly anaesthetised society. A society that teaches us to fear pain, to fear complexity, to fear the messiness of internal spaces,” Del Kathryn Barton says. “As an artist, these are the spaces that you have to courageously step into every day, and turn all the anxiety and worry and uncertainty into a kind of superpower.” It’s 10 am on a Monday morning, and Barton is speaking to me through my pixelated computer monitor. The screen glitches every minute or so, constantly reminding me that we are not standing together in her studio, but are separated by both geography and the whims of my internet provider. Yet even in these difficult circumstances, the gravity of Barton’s words, their sincerity and vulnerability, are able to somehow connect us and collapse the divide. 

Barton is describing her forthcoming feature-length film, Blaze, which follows the story of a twelve year old girl, who witnesses a violent attack and, in the artist’s words, “has her childhood ripped away from her.” The young protagonist is able to navigate these horrors, by looking to her internal world, and the space of her imagination. “This is what I’m trying to celebrate with this story,” Barton explains, who both directed and co-wrote the film. “If we try to create a world that is more supportive of each individual’s uniqueness and healing capacity, I think that we can create a better world, as altruistic and fucking idealistic as that sounds.” Far from being abstract, these ideas and this narrative finds a ground in the artist’s own life. “One thing that I hesitate to talk about is that the project is informed by personal experience. However, I didn’t want to present in a sort of self-confessional way,” she explains. “[It] is the intersection of ‘Del the child’s’ personal experience, and all the vulnerabilities and issues of memory and years of therapy that brings with it, and the desire to tell the story in the world that I live in now.”

You can tell, from the way that she discusses it, that this project means a lot to Barton. As we speak, she constantly oscillates between slow pauses and fast revisions, as each of her utterances is subject to scrutiny and thought. Indeed, one gets the sense that our conversation is more than just the passive retelling of established ideas, but also a space for actively testing each of her thoughts. “I’ve always found a lot of truth in contradiction and dichotomy,” Barton says. “As I get older, I’ve become a lot more content with talking about my work in really contradictory ways – that feels very truthful.” Perhaps it is too much of a leap, but I almost locate some trace of Barton’s description in her paintings, which contain the same kinetic charge and almost overflow of ideas. 

Barton’s film actually began its life as a five panel painting, sing blood-wings sing, 2017. Stretching ten metres in width, the painting is the largest that Barton had ever completed, and functions as a celebration of a girl becoming a woman, through the course of her first menstrual cycle. Pushing back against the tendencies to stigmatise period blood as dirty, or marginalise it as humorous, Barton’s work fêtes the act of bleeding. Her painting wraps the very real physiological occurrence in a veil of sweeping diaphanous phantasmagoria. “You’ve got flowers growing out of vaginas situated on snakes and then on either side of [the central figure] you’ve got two maidens, who have arrived in reverence of their queen,” Barton explains. “In the film, I definitely have also set up little groups of companions in the protagonist’s interior space, where she is their queen.”

While Barton is a proud atheist, these painted figures almost assume a sentience in her descriptions. They are from the imaginative world of her childhood, yet, even as an adult, they hold weight and meaning. “At the risk of sounding a little bit fluffy, these are my companions in the studio; this painting took two years so they were with me for a really long time,” she says. “I love on them and I hate on them and they look back at me and then I feel at the end that I’m really dead to them, and that’s a huge relief to me – that they don’t need anything more from me. It is like a breakup, it’s really hard.”

When it came to filming her latest project, Barton experienced the opposite challenge: a scarcity of time. Where her painted subjects would stare back at her for hours, days, and months, her film characters could not remain suspended in her studio. Quite the contrary. “Years and years of creative development and execution comes down to these seconds in time that you can’t go over because it’s a low budget film,” she recalls. “If we just had, I’m not even exaggerating, five or fifteen minutes more, you know you could get the shot you wanted.” Yet while such constraints obviously frustrate Barton, the inherent complexity of film is also what appeals to her. “It involves so many creative disciplines and for that reason can fail so easily,” she says. “But a perfect film is pretty much a next level experience.” 

I ask the only question that one can in this situation: what is a perfect film? Barton pauses for a few moments, considering, before landing upon Gaspar Noé’s film, Climax, 2018. “I think something that we don’t do very well as Australians is celebrate – and it might be strange to say this – failure,” Barton observes. “I would rather that a film fail epically than just fucking toe the line. Climax is a perfect film because it’s not a perfect film, but it goes down fucking shouting.”

The two-time Archibald prize winner does not like to delineate between her work as a filmmaker and as an artist. For her, these labels are too restrictive in dictating the boundaries of practice. Indeed, even when working on the film production, most days, she would still also find time to paint. In her words, “It’s my sanity, my lifeline.” As we speak, Barton is also working towards a show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, another exhibition in Melbourne, a three-storey-high stained glass window, and “a few other crazy things too.” We look at each other and laugh, before she half-jokingly adds, “Livin’ the dream, but it’s kind of killing me.”

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021

the women who fell to earth 
6–28 May 2022
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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