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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Dell Cathryn Barton

    Can contemporary art be original and new anymore?

    Take for instance the artist Dell Cathryn Barton, whose work‘ The Highway is a Disco’, was recently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia). This multimedia display entitled is a summary of Sydney-born Barton’s career to date. She is known for her drawings and paintings, which are the highlight of this often patchy exhibition.

    ‘Inside Another Land’ is a series of 75 photo-montages (collage with hand-painted details) featuring the female form, half human and half plant. Barton acknowledges her influences. She mentions Surrealist artist Hannah Hoch,who uses photo-collage to explore the role of women in a chaotic world. These striking pictures recall Victorian-era decoupage and botanical illustrations. Barton emphasizes the connection between flowers and femininity. The pictures also resemble fashion photography, reproducing the male gaze which undermines any sort of feminist reading.

    Her short live action film 'Red' pays homage to Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculpture Maman. It opens with the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Barton says ‘it unapologetically celebrates female power in its multiple forms –through the unique and savage rituals of the female Australian redback spider’. This is played out by humans. Actress/ performance artist Cate Blanchett is the mother in the nuclear family. A doe-eyed Alex Russell is the father. The film has some well choreographed dance sequences and is accompanied by an exhilarating musical soundtrack. Overall though what follows is compelling but also silly and clunky.

    But it’s Barton’s drawings and paintings that leave a lasting impression. A collection of drawings entitled ‘I am Flesh again’ features a delicately outlined form resembling a female Gollum-like figure.

    Barton imagines a lush, vibrant post human universe in her latest work 'sing-blood-wings-sing' (2017), consisting of 5 paintings. The same female warrior protagonist is in all 5 works. She wears a blank expression but sometimes she has several eyes or multiple arms. Her elongated limbs and fluttering hand gestures echo Christian and Buddhist art, suggesting a sacred, magical atmosphere.

    There’s a long list of influences here. Barton’s richly detailed and decorated canvases, which she describes as ‘overactive surfaces’ reference aboriginal dot paintings. Her kaleidoscopic colour palate is inspired by the works of Gustav Klimt and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama . She’s partial to using sequins and glitter bringing a sense of femininity to these paintings. She gives them names like ‘or fall again’, ‘is the energy’ and ‘of pink planets’.

    Her paintings have an atmosphere of fecundity, evinced in her earlier works. Barton includes lots of animals- dragons, wallabies, scaly snakes and plant-life alluding to her own memories of growing up in the Australian bush. She also takes inspiration from medieval tapestries, produced at a time when the world was as yet unexplored and full of mystery.

    Despite all the trees and animals the setting also seems distinctly otherworldly. Barton’s female character has agency and ownership of this space. There is something of the zeitgeist in her paintings. Moreover, Barton is able to pull together a multitude of influences to create a realm which is unique, and an intriguing mix of the old and new.

    Her critics have commented that her work is ‘cartoonish’. In fact she has collaborated in a stop-motion animated adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’(2015). She is also known for her portraits, especially a self portrait with her two children ‘You are the most beautiful thing about me’ (2008), and one of actor Hugo Weaving (2013). She brings her dreamlike, otherwordly vision to both works. 

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