Review: Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco at NGV Australia

It’s the bookend experience of Barton’s survey exhibition that tells us the most about this Archibald-winning artist, rather than her bug-eyed portraits.
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Installation view, Del Kathryn Barton’s At the foot of your love (2017) at NGV Australia; photo ArtsHub.

In terms of Australian contemporary art, Del Kathryn Barton has become almost a household name thanks to wining the Archibald Price twice (2008 and 2013). It is a curious foundation, given that in many ways she is far from being a portraitist – her sitters almost verging on the hybrid or post-human rather than a likeness.

Her current survey exhibition at NGV Australia, The Highway is a Disco, opens a window to that extended world beyond “The Del Brand”– her paintings of hyper-sexualised, bug-eyed females with oversized heads, and embedded nymph-like within nature. 

If one was to look at the pulse points across this survey exhibition it gives a very different picture of an artist we thought so familiar.

The exhibition is book-ended by a recent suite of fecund collages that morph your buxom poster-girl with equally sexualised botanical studies – a kind of “What flower is that?” anthology that celebrates 21st century eco-feminism. 

Detail from collage series (2017)

And at the opposite end of the exhibition, Barton’s epic film RED (2016) is screened, commissioned last year by the Art Gallery of South Australia. The mini-feature opens with a mother who frenetically cuts herself free from her costume of a suit, her erotic urgency eventually reaching its climax. It is spliced with footage of the redback spider mating, before devouring the male after copulation.

Staring Cate Blanchett and Barton’s own daughter Arella, stunning choreography and an explosive soundtrack complete this mini-movie. 

Critic John McDonald described: ‘It’s a bold, savage piece of symbolist movie-making that never flags for a second.’

RED Trailer from Aquarius Films on Vimeo.

While the two new works are very different in their delivery, both talk about the fertility and power of women by aligning her with all-powerful Mother Nature. They demonstrate an incredible leap in the work.

Decoding Del

Critics have attempted to decode Barton’s works for the past decade, parallel to her meteoric rise in success, pointing to references from Louise Bourgeois, to Sylvia Plath, to the Dada collagist Hannah Hoch, among others. Some might even argue her use of dots is reminiscent of Indigenous painting.

Barton, however, describes RED as ‘her first consciously feminist work’. She explained in an interview published in the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘RED is a roar. It’s like, WOMAN is fucking fierce, we’re fucking fierce and we’re fucking awesome. Our power is hard to both define and contain! Ladies, can we please stop being so polite about our strengths?’

One can’t help but think of Louise Bourgeois’ massive spider sculptures – a series that began in 1994 and continued to 2010 – and have become iconic within the realms of art history discourse.

But while we might assign big art world references and big art themes to Barton’s work, her work is also incredibly personal and introspective.

Sitting central to this survey exhibition is a new work – an oversized vulval-shaped conch shell exquisitely carved from Huon pine (pictured top). It is tethered to a patchwork sail of Barton’s collages printed on silk. Before it lays a pair of outstretched arms that don’t quite reach the shell. Titled At the foot of your love (2017), it is a response to her mother’s recent battle with a terminal illness. 

While most of us can read the symbolism of the conch shell – its spiral form mythically alluding to the cycle of life, or the Buddhist belief that blowing the conch signifies victory over suffering  – the sculpture’s connection to the collages is less clear and a little strained.

This central installation is surrounded by a suite of paintings, and viewers have clear sightlines to it as they start to move through and into the exhibition space – like it is almost calling or pulling them through. It is magnetic in scale, prowess and presence.

There is a sense of journey across this exhibition. After the initial introduction to Barton’s grid hang of her 75 intimate montage collages, one is then affronted with a sensory overload as they move into the next gallery. Barton’s obsessively decorative paintings sit against a black wall that seemingly makes them jump out at you.

Installation view Del Kathryn Barton’s collage series (2017); supplied NGV

‘She treats the business of sex, procreation and nurturing as if it were something straight out of Game of Thrones. The everyday occurrences of a woman’s life are transmuted into a heroic quest, with mothers and daughters turned into characters from science fiction,’ describes John McDonald. He is spot on. There is something popularist and heroic about this work, and yet it writhes with a darker underbelly that rests beyond understanding.

Opposite them is Barton’s Mud Monster series (2014), where a wallpaper of graffiti-style eyes that stare back at you – perforated with framed up slogans written with dripped blood-like paint.

Installation view of Barton’s Mud Monster series (2014) at NGV Australia survey exhibition 2017-2018; Photo ArtsHub

Highlights also include the debut of Barton’s largest painting to-date, sing blood-wings sing (2017), comprised of five panels and over 10-metres in length, it depicts a female-focused reimagining of the 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary song, Puff the Magic Dragno, depicted by four breasted, rainbow coloured dragons.

The gallery explained: ‘Barton often listens to the folk tune whilst working in her studio as a symbolic reminder to maintain her childlike curiosity through her artistic practice … encouraging her audience to see how imagination and desire can test traditional forms.’

Installation view of Barton’s sing blood-wings sing (2017) at NGV Australia survey exhibition 2017-2018; Photo ArtsHub

Also of note are the small Louise Bourgeois-inspired sculptures of the penis room, and Barton’s principal love of drawing threaded across this show.

Overall the exhibition has a feeling of frenzy to it, driving and relentless. One is caught in a world of fantasy and the hybrid where sexual pleasure and fecund fertility is celebrated … and somewhat beyond control. It is the ultimate pendulum swing.

What this survey does is tell us that her oeuvre has developed into so much more than those paintings that initially bought her fame. Her diversity and complexity across mediums and emotional range is given full reign.

It is surprising that Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco is her first museum survey, given her success and demand commercially. And further more, it’scurious that it was a Victorian gallery that took the charge on this, despite Barton’s Sydney roots.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Del Kathryn Barton: The Highway is a Disco
NGV Australia at Federation Square
17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina