The studio of Del Kathryn Barton is a place of colour, forms and found objects that belong, I sense, as much in dreams as in reality.
One feels transformed, as if the paintings in combination with the artist’s poetic prose as she speaks shift a line between dream and reality.
At the time of my visit the artist is reaching the end of another long journey painting and I’m somewhat surprised that she has let me see an unfinished piece. She explains that unlike some people who like the tension of having spectators look at a work in progress, she prefers to keep her pieces private until they are completed. Although Barton comes across as composed and strong, she speaks of “usually avoiding feelings of vulnerability and being exposed that early showings of work would give rise to”. It’s strange to an outsider to hear someone speak of a fear of rejection – the paintings around me are wondrous in composition, colour and content.
These paintings were done specifically for a book project. This involved her providing paintings not so much to illustrate Oscar Wilde’s famous story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ but for the works to be its visual embodiment. The story deals with universal themes of love, violence, sacrifice, disappointment, ingratitude, joy and sorrow. The nightingale that gives its life for love does so not knowing of the betrayal that comes in the wake of its death. The nightingale gives its life to create a rose of blood. The analogy holds perhaps when one experiences the sense and the extent to which Barton gives of her life to her art. She writes in the foreword to the book: ‘It seems possible to me that the Nightingale is the true artist, she gives completely of her deepest essence.’
The story of process can be dreary, but not when Barton explores her own. It appears there are many ‘people’ that inhabit her mind as she works, but mostly they divide into two types. Both are ignited by the necessity to create; it is the work that takes her somewhere and generates its own energy. There is one that emerges when doing the labour-intensive work on the feathers of the birds, characterised by a sense of calm and patience in the process of building them up in all their intricate complexity. Then there is the person who makes the final finish that takes the form of a splattering of paint that is seen in her works. This requires the right kind of mood, she insists. It must also emerge at the right time, that moment in which she wants her work “to be teetering on the edge of completeness, still in a state of rawness but built up to that point of saturation … more would destroy it”. The other person that emerges at this point “is harnessing different states of being, taking a risk”. It may occur randomly in the night and requires a particular ‘head-space’.
In Wilde’s story the nightingale, upon seeing the sadness of the student who needs to find the reddest of roses to give his loved one, decides to sacrifice its life to create a rose drawn from its blood. At the height of this exchange of life for art and love she gives one last burst of music:
“The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.” (Oscar Wilde).
In Barton’s work ‘eyes’ fascinate her as both objects and symbols; they exude things as well as take things in: there are the tears and there are eyes that resonate the dreams from within and from all that the world provides. These extraordinary paintings will be available to all who know how to listen and who want to see into the centre of things: the beauty, the terror and the transformation.
Louise Bourgeois and Australian Artists, featuring new works of Del Kathryn Barton, shows at Heide Museum of Modern Art until April 14.
Director- Metro Gallery