Del Kathryn Barton by Julie Ewington
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
What strange magic is happening here? At the centre of Del Kathryn Barton’s the heart land 2013–14 we see an unexpected inversion: a female figure is head‑down in the earth, her nakedness antithetical to the upright elaborately garbed women gathered around her. She is a great tree of life: her generative organs sprout branches, leaves and flowers, eventually reaching out to a beautiful, verdant, pulsing universe.
Curiously, the tree‑mother’s heart resembles twinned organs, with tiny arm‑like vessels embracing the other. This striking affirmation of love is repeated at the tree’s apex. For vibrant trembling life, given wholeheartedly, is the true meaning of this immersive painting. Around the mother‑queen‑tree we see beings whose life depends on her—the alert women with their feathered limbs, a kangaroo whose open heart replicates her own, a lovely thylacine resurrected from extinction by this miracle, vines writhing like serpents, glorious flowers: all manner of growing things, including strangely sprouting hands and a single tiny bird. Blooming, burgeoning, this place is filled with abundance.
The latent power of this magical world is matched by the painting’s pulsing surface, an analogue for the vigour of nature: everywhere we see brilliant colour, radiating to the edge of the canvas where it meets, for a moment, the deep blue of starry constellations beyond. More than that, the entire surface is covered with marks, some dotted, some linear, filling every square centimetre, the very substance making a universe pregnant with meaning. This is life held in suspension. As Barton said in 2017, ‘I ground myself through obsessive mark‑making. It’s a state of very precarious balance ... it’s about how to hold a bigness in a harmonious place’.(1) This is a hybrid art, and Barton’s idiosyncratic personal style has many mothers, including a life‑long enthusiasm for nature—she was brought up in bushland in the lower Blue Mountains near Sydney. In her knowing mash‑up, the background dots might have migrated from Yayoi Kusama’s hallucinatory screens, but she also raids sources including fashion and textiles, Dutch and Italian Renaissance paintings, and the Austrians Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
At nine metres long, the heart land is one of Barton’s most ambitious paintings. Originally made for Dark heart, the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Contemporary Art, it is a grand statement of her ambition to place woman‑driven creative energy at the heart of life—familial, social, creative and public. Barton leads by example: her work includes collaborations with the fashion label Romance Was Born, portraits that have twice won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture, and an illustrated book of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful story The nightingale and the rose, which she later animated with filmmaker Brendan Fletcher.(2) With its fecund energies, and striking affirmations of womanly power, Del Kathryn Barton’s work has achieved a rare accolade: it has captured the public imagination.
(1) Stephanie Convery, ‘Del Kathryn Barton’s fertile universe: “The naked body is so many things”’, The Guardian, 17 November 2017, at theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/17/into-the-pleasure-zone-del-kathryn-bartonshow-is-a-jungly-fertile-universe, accessed 20 November 2019.
(2) Del Kathryn Barton won the Archibald Prize in 2008 and 2013. The nightingale and the rose was published by Art & Australia in 2012 and made into a 14-minute animated film in 2015.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Ewington, Julie. "Del Kathryn Barton" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 38–39.
JULIE EWINGTON is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster.