Del Kathryn Barton
Not very comfortable for a Melbourne girl wearing wool
It’s a muggy day in Sydney, and Del Kathryn Barton is trying to cool down the lounge room. We’re seated at a huge mid-century dining table with a couple of dogs wending around our feet, picking at bread rolls and waiting for the photographer to show up. Though her kids are at school, there’s evidence of them in the myriad framed drawings hung amongst a riot of photos, paintings, and contemporary indigenous works.
Propped against one wall, just under a fluorescent Adam Cullen, is a framed photograph of her son, Kell; the work that caused a minor turmoil earlier in the year when it was pulled from a charity exhibition. The irony in this, of course, is that Del is an artist whose work confronts the erasure of children from contemporary art, and whose eerie, tense drawings of early adolescents call into question much-tattered notions of childhood innocence.
In her paintings, young figures stand surrounded by animals, birds and flowers with long, phallic stamens; multi-breasted women suckle rabbits in iconographic poses; and landscapes sprout vulvas and seemingly animate trees and vines. The result is a hallucinogenic chaos, where sexual energy not only drives creation, but blurs the boundaries between child and adult, landscape and figure, gender and sex. It’s hard, looking at one of her works, not to imagine their creator as some kind of tantric-voodoo earth-mother priestess.
Right now, though, she’s (very humanly) fussing around making sure that there’s enough for lunch, and bemoaning the fact that she’s never had air conditioning installed in the lounge (it would be practical, but ugly). Our conversation is punctuated by trips to the freezer for more ice, and shared turns in front of a small fan. After half an hour of chatting over sandwiches, I finally remember to turn my dictaphone on.
“All I can say is that the work does mean everything to me and it is like a life source.”
JESSICA FRIEDMANN: So we were talking about your show earlier this year…
DEL KATHRYN BARTON: Yeah. That was the shortest timeframe I’ve ever had to make a show, so it was extremely stressful but kind of exhilarating at the same time… It was a show I made in four months, and normally I’d give myself a year. And I felt that I could do it, but I would just have to engage with my practice in a way that I haven’t engaged before, in the context of being a working mum. Obviously I had to have long discussions with my partner about it, because he did virtually become a single parent for that time. It was very stressful and challenging, but it was also a huge gift to just put my blinkers up. I was working seven-day weeks, and getting up at 4am. It was kind of heaven in a way—heaven for a short period of time. Hours like that aren’t very sustainable.
Is time usually your biggest impediment to making work?
It is, it is. At the same time, I’m uneasy about making things quickly. Maybe it’s part of some weird work ethic or something that I have, or an internal values system. For me, there’s something intrinsically important about having a relationship with making something—a long relationship. I say that for the paintings; it is quite different with the drawings. I’m very attracted to things that have been made by hand, and where there’s a sense of an arduous engagement. I’ve always been attracted to things like that.
It’s funny that you say the word ‘arduous’, because I’ve always felt with all of the artists and writers that I know that there are definitely two categories. There are the people whose only impediment is space and time and if you left them they would just work all day, because they have this intense creative drive. And the people who hate writing or painting or making music but do it because they feel that they have to, and it’s just like pulling teeth.
That’s really interesting because I can’t imagine the latter. I just can’t imagine… I feel like if you have a creative discipline or you go into a vocation in that way, the only thing that can sustain you is the work. Because they’re very hard industries, I think.
So if you then have an ever-flowing wellspring, where does the work come from?
It’s a big question, and obviously I think I have some consciousness around answering that… but on another level I feel like I don’t know where it comes from, and that I don’t need to know. That’s part of what’s interesting about it.
I’ve never had a creative block— maybe that is still coming, I don’t know.
But it’s just always there. I’ll have an idea for a work or a starting point, and then it’s just about the alchemy of starting, of casting off. I’m sure a lot of painters would say that once you’ve started, you’ve begun an unknowable journey. I love starting new work, and I love the middle ground of a work—but finishing is just so painful because more is more is more for me. It’s hard to know when to stop, which is, I think, one of my limitations too. And again, I just love things that are overactive and dense, and humming a lot.
You must see your work around a fair bit. Is that a strange experience, or do you just feel like you’re visiting your children?
No, it is always very strange. Even talking about it now, I do feel anxiety about that. But it’s almost like looking at your partner of ten years across the room talking to someone else. Maybe you’ll just see something that you didn’t know about them, even though you know them so well… With the work, you almost want to catch it unaware, and maybe you’ll see it differently. Or see it in a complete way, because I think that’s the hardest thing in the studio, how close you get to them. You can’t see them clearly.
It’s an interesting question, of needing to be a voyeur of your own work. What’s your relationship with space? You were talking about your studio space before just being scummy and derelict and not particularly romantic. Do you have things organised in certain ways…
I do, I do.
… to replicate the feel of walking into a gallery?
No. More than anything what I need from my studio is a feeling that the outside world doesn’t exist, so it’s like a cave. And that’s where I’m the most at peace, and most embodied. Spending long days in the studio comes very easily to me. I’d love it to be more beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but every space has its own limitations, and the space I’m in at the moment is just very industrial. In saying that, I love spending days there; I love spending time immersed in work. The industrial element of that space does erode my soul a little bit, and I would like to be in a space that does feel more nurturing, but I can kind of work anywhere, as long as I feel like I can shut the door and not be encroached on.
Certainly, making work in an institutional context was very hard for me, and when I first left art school I was in a group studio for two years, mainly because of the affordability of sharing spaces.
I felt that, for me, the real journey began my first year out of art school when I was in the group studio and just working four part-time jobs to buy art supplies.
You’re in the studio every other hour and you’re just really working out firstly if that lifestyle is sustainable and interesting to you, and secondly hoping that you can start making something of quality and of value.
Art school definitely toughened me up; it was pretty brutal. And I was this very naive country girl living in Newtown in the late eighties, early nineties. So I think there are a lot of facets that made it quite challenging for me. Apart from the fact that I was also very, very earnest about doing well, which is not very cool. Or it wasn’t cool then, maybe it’s cooler now, I think people have got more relaxed about that now. I didn’t party at all. I was a total purist at that stage of my life and all I wanted was to do well and make art.
But still, energetically, it’s like terror to me, people seeing the work half-finished. It is something that I have to accept, but it never comes easily. My partner so rarely comes into my studio, I definitely need—I know it’s all sounding a bit like I’m a total control freak, but… [laughter]—it’s just about a space where your relationship with your work is as unimpeded as possible.
Yeah, it totally makes sense. You have done quite a bit of collaboration though—those beautiful seasons with Romance Was Born, which literally embodied your work in a very collaborative way, for example… Do you collaborate still?
I’ve been very lucky to work with some incredible creatives, although sometimes I think the word ‘collaboration’ is misleading. Mostly, I feel like I don’t collaborate well, because I’m a control freak… But the odd project comes along that is just too juicy to say no to. Working with Romance Was Born was such fun, mainly because they are hilarious, adorable, crazy and extremely talented people… But we never sat down and worked together. They did their thing, I just offered them access to all my archives.
I also get curious about other mediums. At the moment I’m working on two creative collaborations—for want of a better word—a fairytale film project with Brendan Fletcher and Sarah Blasko, and I’m also creating artwork for an Oscar Wilde fairy story. It’s a book that I’m making with art&Australia. I’ve been working on it for about a year now, and it’s another six months’ work. So there’ll be about ten paintings all up, and about twenty drawings. I did put the project on hold to make my solo show, but I’ve just come back to it in the last three months. It’s the story of the Rose and the Nightingale—I don’t know if you’ve read it?
It’s ringing bells.
It’s really amazing.
It’s got all those big themes in it that I love. Metamorphosis, transcendence, agony of the soul, love, melancholy, longing. Longing! It’s all about longing.
And Oscar Wilde. It’s funny, a dear friend of mine, I told her about the project and she was like, “Del! Do you realise that was the book I used to read when I was sixteen to make myself cry?” And I was like, “Perfect!”
You want to make people cry?
I don’t want to make people cry, I just feel like… I don’t think it’s going to be a book that’s necessarily suitable for young children, but there’s so much fluffy literature for children now. It drives me insane, it really does. Everything’s just far too happy, and predictably happy.
… and unrealistically happy… it’s a big conversation.
Do you read those stories to your own kids, the Grimm fairytales and Oscar Wilde? The ones where little children get their hands chopped off and locked in the oven…?
[laughs] Whatever happened to that? Everything’s too glittery. There’s too much glitter. Anyway, one of the things that distinguished my solo show this year was the use of feathers on the body, which totally came as a natural extension of the Nightingale project. Just formally, as well as the narrative arc… I just was really happy with the feathers. The monochromatic relationships. They have this really interesting kinetic quality with the eye and I wanna do that on a bigger scale.
Something about the feathers… speaking of fairytales, I always get this deep sense of unease from that sort of thing. There was a fairytale that I used to read when I was quite young about a princess whose eleven brothers are turned into swans, and she has to knit jumpers for them out of nettles to turn them human again. Anyway, she pricks up her hands, and she’s in agony, and the deadline is looming, and she only finishes half of the last jumper, so the youngest brother is flapping around with this one long feather arm. It always stuck with me.
Wow. A good story, I should go back to that story. My show with Roslyn [Oxley] this year was succinct insofar as there was just the one medium, painting and drawing. In the past I would like to throw in a photographic work or a sculptural work. I’m developing some bronze pieces at the moment—again, I feel very nervous outsourcing, it’s that control thing. And media that aren’t very plastic… I think what I love so much about painting and drawing is that plasticity, and that things can still be changed radically in the last ten minutes. I get very excited about that. I find that kind of energy very engaging.
In saying that, if it works it’s exciting. I haven’t done a lot of bronze. [Wanders away briefly to refer to work.] That was the last bronze work I did, the pumpkin with the hands. And I was happy with that work, which I why I made one for myself as well. Also with sculpture the cost can be very prohibitive, and I don’t like feeling that kind of worry too. But I am making some bronzes at the moment.
Sorry, I’m just experiencing a great wave of discomfort.
I see it as being celebratory! [much laughter] Although like yourself, a friend recently commented that they looked like they were in agony or something.
Because I think there’s always a real undercurrent of menace in your work.
Maybe that’s all about me.
Yeah, menace… Definitely I think longing. But not menace.
Maybe I find that longing for a bit threatening [laughs].
I think for me, talking in terms of big themes of life, like the longing for connection, that that’s what drives a lot of the narratives in my work. There’s a lot of sadness and deep soul stuff for me in that. I can’t fully explain, it’s just there.
There also seems to be a lot of thwarted sexuality.
Yes, that I think is often misinterpreted. In saying that, I don’t feel like I have a complete readout on why that content’s there, and I don’t feel like I need to know. I’m really content not knowing. But I see a sexual energy as being very close to a life-giving energy, so I think that the iconography often stems from that also.
I’m very interested in the idea, even just conceptually or intellectually, of the orgasmic body. I think for me that’s almost the ideal state of being,
and I’m not a religious person, so maybe it’s that kind of thing too. It’s like a religious state, a place of complete expansion and connection simultaneously. And I do find sex very creatively inspiring, and I always have, and I do… There is a very heightened energy in the studio, and that can be close to a sexual energy. It’s like that quality of arousal, and it’s not necessarily a physical arousal. It’s a whole being kind of arousal. It’s addictive, I think. It’s part of why we go back to the studio, definitely. You’re really on, you’re really turned on. Like the on button you know [laughter]. There’s an off button and an on button, and when you’re in the studio the on button is on.
But I’ve always been interested, again in a metaphorical sense, in the idea of the intersex as an idealised state too. It is an image that has been used throughout many canons of art history to embody unity, harmony, you know… I hate ‘yin-yang’, I hate those words, it’s like ‘illustration’, it’s that kind of thing. Also in terms of a relationship to one’s interpersonal life, notions of understanding one’s male self and one’s female self. I do resonate with that as a delineation. Men and women are different, I think. But understanding what’s male in me… I mean, I wouldn’t want to say this too definitively because it is fluid.
That’s really interesting, the idea of sex and painting being analogous, because sex is pretty much the most collaborative thing you can do.
There isn’t that blind focus on the embodied self, so much as a pure, complete collaboration. Do you feel as though the work is a partner in the studio, or is that getting a bit wafty? Can you embody the work as much as you are embodied by making the work?
I think there are elements of that, definitely, and I think that’s a very perceptive comment. And it’s not something that I’ve talked much about, actually. In many ways I think my practice is my perfect partner. But I wouldn’t want that to be too overstated, or to be too weird, because it’s not like that either. It’s not like this projected Other… maybe a little bit.
But also it’s interesting that you would bring that up too, because to talk about sexuality, for want of a bigger word, the narratives that exist within my work are about the individual. They’re not about coupling. And again I think that goes back to that energy of longing.
It’s not about being lonely so much as being solitary in an empowered and embodied way. That you’re almost beyond need, and not even because you’re able to self-satisfy, it’s just because you are beyond that. You’re just on already. God!
No I think that’s the original iconography—there’s Mary just radiating completion in and of herself in a sexual/non-sexual way.
No, I really resonate with that, thank you. It is like that, or the longing for that.
There’s also the orgone generator and all that crazy hallucinatory stuff that happened in the seventies, with John Hurford’s work… I feel like there’s a real resonance with that as well in your painting.
I haven’t considered that. Definitely the religious iconography. I always try to steer away from talking about it because I have so many issues with religion. Clearly some of the best work that’s ever been made has come through those dogmas. Maybe an individual’s capacity to break through the religious dogma, through this incredible iconography…
But also that state of ecstasy that you were describing, which is that aesthetic, orgasmic response to the universe, is so tied to religion for so many people.
It’s true, yeah.
And I guess the other thing, what people sometimes do find provocative about your work is that it features children or infantilised figures generating that energy.
Yes, but it’s about innocence and a subterraneous consciousness more than anything.
In some ways you could say that’s almost when the energy is most potent—or maybe it was for me—because you don’t fully understand it. Like if you fear something, you give it power. So there’s that quality of power and innocence, and the ‘not knowing’ that gives it a depth. I am interested in that, and certainly it was a huge thing for my journey as an adolescent.
There was such a big energy there, such a big energy, and it permeated all facets of my life. Because I spent a lot of time in the bush, and I had a very rich, imaginary life, it did take on a life of its own. And I didn’t have relationships young, and I did feel very alone with this big energy that I wasn’t necessarily able to share. That was hard, yeah it was hard, but beautiful too. You can never go back to that. Or maybe you can. No you can’t really, you can’t.
Just in your paintings.
When did you start making art that included images of children?
Well, it was my first body of work—my first commercial painting show—and it was just after the birth of my first child. So I was just living it, and I’d never even considered using children up until that point. And I was never a maternal person up until I became a mother. It was an unplanned pregnancy and I was just sort of catapulted into this new universe, this wonderful new universe. And I, like every new mother, was just so dizzyingly in love with my child. That was where the show came from. And I think it definitely comes from an extension of my experience of being a mother.
Is that a hard thing to navigate in the art world?
Being a mother?
Well, making art around motherhood.
Yeah, I think it’s really hard. It’s like ‘illustration’ or ‘yin and yang’. It’s hard. But important, I think, and I do think there are some artists that have done it incredibly well. I mean the one that stands out most to me, and she remains my favourite artist, is Louise Bourgeois. All these incredible works on paper of pregnant women, and women suckling, and I think it’s really, really hard content to do well without it looking naff or clichéd or just too heavy. It just has to be sincere.
There seems to me, in the contemporary art world, this real avoidance of the viscerality of being a parent, which I find odd.
But just at large don’t you think, the viscerality of everything is just a bit… I mean you look at sex in movies, or particularly sex in American movies. It’s like there’s ‘sex in movies’ and then there’s ‘sex’. It’s this whole constructed language system. It’s not real.
It’s interesting though, because when you’re in the viscerality of being a mum that’s when you’re talking about it, and that’s when people do start talking about it. I think they’re mainly dialogues that mothers have with other mothers, and they’re amazing, important conversations. But in saying that, I am really open about talking about my body and I do realise at times that does make other people uncomfortable too, so you do have to be careful. And I’m not on any bandwagon. I know what feels right for me, and what feels right for me is not going to feel right for someone else. I had two insane natural births and I’m really passionate about natural birth, but you have to be so careful talking about birth.
You really do. It’s unbelievable to me how politicised it is. You’d think it’s the pinnacle of—I was going to say abject expression, but that’s probably a bit of a negative spin on childbirth. I’m sure it’s very beautiful as well.
Well it’s everything all at once, and it is abject, but it’s abject pertaining to ecstasy I think. It’s an ecstatic experience that involves a lot of pain, but it’s pain that’s really contextual, and I feel like we live in this really overly-anaesthetised society where we’re taught to fear pain. Because at the same time your body is cracking and opening up, but you’re given this crazy stuff to work with. It’s actually incredible if you can work with it. Of course if something’s going wrong you want the best that modern medicine can offer you, but I don’t think that we need to be taught… There’s certain pain… I don’t wanna sound like a martyr, it’s not about that at all.
About being as embodied as you can be?
Exactly. I’m the first person to take a Panadol when I’ve got a headache but it’s just…
That’s not a very productive pain.
No, it’s not. Drugs, but look, I don’t think I wanna go… The baby comes out, it’s really alert, and you’re alert, and the point where I met my son for the first time after forty hours of labour—that is my peak life moment. There is nothing that compares to that for me. And his eyes were wide open and we just lay in this carnage, on this bed. It’s crazy, just looking into each other’s eyes, it was so heightened and oh my God. You don’t get that otherwise.
And for the dad to be involved in that too, it’s just so bonding. Natural birth does demand more from the father too, like the support. It’s almost as much about him as it is about you, ideally anyway. Well it was for me.
So he is not in a creative industry?
You have a nice balance.
We really do, and I don’t know how he puts up with me, honestly. He’s difficult too in his own way, but my brain is not stable [laughs]. I definitely need someone very strong in the other direction, and I bring—and my daughter— she has a very big, crazy female energy too—and Chris needs that. It drives him crazy, but he’s very good at managing that.
He’s one of the calmest people that I’ve ever met. And sometimes I just want to shake him and try to make him shout. It takes a lot to make him shout,
whereas I shout very easily.
Oh, it’s frustrating shouting at someone who won’t shout back.
Yeah [laughs]. He’s very cerebral and always the voice of reason. Because I’m very impulsive. Look, we do work well—it’s a volatile road at times but it’s good.
Thinking about childbirth, and Louise Bourgeois, and thinking about that self-portrait… Does most of your work get into the realm of self-portraiture?
No, not at all. I think it’s better to say that most of it is self-referential but it’s certainly not autobiographical. I think that that’s a really important distinction.
How do you then make that distinction? I’m just thinking of you communing with your work in here… It’s all being pulled out of you, but there’s something that prevents it from being directly representational or autobiographic.
I think so. What do you think?
I think definitely there is, but I’m having trouble articulating what that thing is, given that your process sounds so pure. I mean it’s the fiction element of course.
That’s right, you start… Let’s call the work an entity, and then there’s you, and you go on a journey together. It’s not that you’re completely in control, you’re sort of bringing something into being, but it’s something that has its own integrity or it’s own energy. That’s my sense of it. That might sound a bit herbal [much laughter]. You know what I mean.
I totally know what you mean. I think work has its own autonomy but that’s really hard sometimes to reconcile. You talked about embodiment and I think that’s the perfect way of putting it, but it can also feel as though something is moving through you, even when you know it’s your own process moving it through you.
I really struggle with that idea of the artist as the channel too. I think that that’s really fluffy, and I’m not saying, sorry, that that’s what you’re saying…
No, but ‘herbal’, ‘fluffy’, ‘illustration’, ‘yin-yang’ – it’s hard to talk about.
It is hard to talk about. All I can say—and can I say it always with emotion—is that the work does mean everything to me and it is like a life source. But there’s lots of textures—it’s a lot of fun at times, cheeky, and unexplainable too.
Like a fiction writer I’m sure, things gestate and bubble over.
You’re on a little run with something and that’s taking you somewhere, and you’re making it, but it’s taking you there at the same time. I love that.
I think, tied into this discourse… you do make work that leaves you very exposed.
And it doesn’t sound, the way you describe that process, as though that’s necessarily a deliberate choice. Does it require anything of you beyond making the work, to be that open?
Yeah, I think so. It’s tricky. I do feel… because on one level it is self-referential, the work, but I think I’d be lying to say that I was just making it purely for myself. Because I do feel the need… I do feel moved to share the work also. But there is anxiety that comes out of that, no question. I do think that as I get older I get better at distancing myself from that, in terms of that interface with an audience. I don’t feel that I’m very good at that whole thing of meeting people that have bought your work and talking about it, and I don’t like doing that. I’d prefer not to do that. I think it’s better if the work just goes on to have its own kind of autonomous life that is beyond you.
Where to now?
Watch Marc Whiteway’s follow-up video with Del here.