Del Kathryn Barton: Heavy Petting - Art Collector

Issue 38, October - December 2006

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Sweet, sassy and very sexy, the girls in Del Kathryn Barton’s paintings play with their pets in a way that is as other-worldly as it is earthy. Story by Edward Colless.

They pout, they sneer, they leer. You can’t ignore them. But you don’t know how to handle them. Some have the haughty, regal expressions of grand dames who have been outraged by an obscure social insult. In others, the vixen arrogance seems about to break like a wave into a petulant infantile cry. A few stare past you from a somnambulant vacuum, their heavy-lidded almond eyes askew or clouded over with a narcotic euphoria. Every now and then there is a woodland nymphet – a feral at a rave or maybe an arcadian brownie – with a darkly incandescent gaze that’s tear stained, opening her wet lips as she parts her legs like a lap dancer. Elsewhere, standing in the halo formed by a sexual radiation, a nude hairless macroencephalic alien with pixie ears offers a gesture of benediction.

Del Kathryn Barton’s army of amazon lovers is a formidable crew. There’s no question that they’re all female, even if occasionally they sport a weighty, solid penis or sprout fur over their arms and faces. No matter what mutations extend and trim the profile or shift the signals of gender or species, these creatures are all too human and captivating in their girlishness. Whether their faces have the plump composure of a baby, the anorectic lassitude of a bored catwalk model or the remote severity of a bondage mistress, the figures that Barton has been depicting compulsively for the past five years are manipulations and multiplications of a sensuality that anxiously shifts between narcissistic self-satisfaction and the excitations or craving of an omnivorous appetite. Within each figure’s confident and even elegantly sinuous exhibitionistic pose there are nervous tremors of indecision, apprehension and expectation. Embodied in the selfish or disdainful expressions of Barton’s odalisques is the painful aspiration of an under-age beauty-pageant model ripe for abduction. It’s a sensuality that divides between languor and wantonness, and oscillates from decorativeness to violent demand.

“I’m not trying to project these images on women generally,” Barton explains. “This work came out of a personal anguish … it began as something confessional.” What is said in this confession seems both explicit and also obscure. In one of Barton’s large scale coloured pencil drawings shown at Ray Hughes in Sydney in 2002 a female Tasmanian “tiger” observes a woman with funky braids and make-up that looks like war paint who opens her legs to masturbate. The “tiger’s” tail curls suggestively around the woman’s leg, like one of her own fingers stroking her and holding her open. In another image, a naked woman with jet black eyes reclines unflinchingly with her legs apart as a kitten digs its claws into her thigh while vigorously licking her out, as if it was at a bowl of milk. The women strike poses that could be derived from a porn shoot, yet have the chic detailing of a fashion shoot. The drawing is precise but tense, like Egon Schiele’s. It traces the bony contour of a rib cage or leg as a faint, tenuous line in a sea of unmarked negative space, and then ignites in the contortions of a hand, or the intricate folds of a sheet or the recesses of a softly open mouth. The women in this show – who are all variously in ecstasy as they lounge with and caress their animals – seem transported into a paradoxically sexless state: an almost mystical, magnetic symmetry rather than intercourse with their nonhuman partners.

While we can’t treat her imagery as a generalisation of the female psyche, there is today a growing population of pro-active and dichotomous female figures – desirable and desiring – that have the elusive features, explicit passions and polymorphous pleasures of Barton’s retinue. We meet them in teen movies from Clueless to Ken Park. We see their self-portrait in the work of Japanese cult d-i-y photo-diarist Hiromix, or in the banal domestic digital porn of Natacha Merritt, or in the daily appearances of thousands of web-cam girls. There is not only a thriving global culture of medi-savvy “bad girls” who produce and market their own image, but an industry that induces a voracious consumer demand for them. They have become such striking lifestyle logos that, like the young-teen merchandise devised around the sweetly psychotic goth character of Emily Strange, they acquire the rhetorical immediacy of an emoticon. These days, in galleries of contemporary art from Los Angeles to Munich, you’ll see Bambi and bunnies romping with Heidi.

But while this may be the cultural habitat for Del Kathryn Barton’s art, her characters have an idiosyncratic grace and a commanding presence that are distinctive. Indeed, for all their fashionable contemporary allusions – and there’s no doubting that they have a particular hip edge – they are also strangely out of time. Those big, overstated eyes – which are hallmarks of feminine vapid doe-eyed cuteness in Japanese manga – are in Barton’s faces beady and penetrating and vampish, or else they resemble the unearthly gaze often found in naïve art. Equally, the graphic precision of her figures outlined against a high-key decorative background may seem initially reminiscent of the contemporary Japanese pop style dubbed, by Takashi Murakami, “superflat”. But the energised and wildly fertile shallow spaces Barton puts her figures in – and in which her figures seduce and are seduced by their menagerie of familiars: the cats, dogs, monkeys, snakes, bunnies and deer that lick, suck, paw, scratch, nuzzle and tongue their mistresses – this world is more in tune with the exquisite half-mad fantasies of fairies in the garden painted in the nineteenth century by Richard Dadd or the naïf mania, a century later, of Henry Darger’s paedophilic panoramas of naked hermaphrodite slave children than it is with the contemporary brash cartoon monsters of Murakami.

“I suppose the Pop elements in my work,” she explains, “are to do with liking flatness. But that has more to do with the fashion world than with manga. I look at a lot of fashion to see the contrary ways society is celebrating and defining female beauty. I watch the fashion channel on cable. It’s great, and ghastly of course.” This shallow space of fashion, its collapse of life into a pose and collapse of character into a decorative appearance, is also a fantasy realm of make-overs and of make-up. Beauty may be skin deep but the skin can extend and fold and glisten or stain. Rather than solemnly measuring the depth of her feelings, the artist in the shallows of fashion joyfully and fantastically extends herself through pain and pleasure. She incorporates fashion accessories as fetishistic embellishments – corsets, chokers, knee high boots, bondage straps, masks, boudoir lingerie and lacing that coils and curls agitatedly over naked skin like a vine or a ribbon around a precious present and that flicks out at its ends like a snake’s tongue; that’s to say, she uses them as instruments of unrestricted sexual fantasy rather than as idealisations of feminine beauty. She lets the makeup run, dribble like blood, slide and smear into a flush of shimmering bruises. “When make-up runs it’s an unveiling,” says Barton. “The wetness is like the unconscious coming to the surface. It’s the opening of an orifice. A bruise is like that. A surface that can’t hide what is underneath.”

Perhaps the artist who illuminates Barton’s work most is one of the most problematic of artists, Hans Bellmer, who spent a great part of his life rearranging and photographing the components of his life-size female puppet into different phantasmatic postures of enticement and ravishment in the rooms of his Berlin apartment. “I spent a lot of time looking at Bellmer’s work when I was in art school,” reports Barton, “and I still find it amazing. The dark intensity of drawings of women especially. It would be a mistake to reduce them simply to an expression of misogyny. There is an abject physicality to them, but also a feeling of something other, outside that.”

Perhaps, like Bellmer, Del Kathryn Barton’s art is an ecstatic vision induced by an idiosyncratic obsession. A phantasm of epic repetition and addiction. A fantasy of the fluid exchange of identity between human and non-human. If so, it is her face that is being drawn again and again in the women and equally in the animals; but a face that is never the same, no matter how repeatedly it is made up. It can hide nothing. It is compelled to open itself infinitely and indefinitely. In order to recognise itself it must move to the brink of dissipation. “When I used pencil,” she explains, “I could rub it back. I now draw with pens so there’s no going back. I use architectural pens directly onto the stretched canvas. I need the energy, the anxiety in that very first mark, so I can only go forward. The line embodies my own vulnerability in that precise moment.” •

Works by Del Kathryn Barton will be at Kaliman Gallery, Sydney from 6 to 28 October 2006.

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