The highly complex, sensual portraits by Australian artist Del Kathryn Barton have earned her the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture twice over the course of her career. She works in a diverse array of media—painting, sculpture, film, and digital collage—but stylistically, the worlds she creates are unified. Capturing a perspective of the female experience and sexuality, she renders complicated concepts in wildly vivid, figurative detail.
“the highway is a disco,” currently on view at ARNDT Singapore, is Barton’s first solo show outside of Australia. It brings together a selection of fantastical paintings, sculptures, as well as collage and film, that border on the hallucinatory. Barton’s hyper-controlled lines and elaborate organic forms merge chaos and order into sumptuous compositions built with acrylic and gouache. The backgrounds behind her women, the clothing they’re draped in, and the ornaments with which they’re adorned all have a textured and glimmering quality that offsets the pale washes of their nearly transparent skin. It’s not surprising that the process for creating these paintings is labor-intensive, requiring a long-term commitment. The artist has said “there’s something intrinsically important about having a relationship with making something—a long relationship.” Barton’s figures run in wild combinations: they are erotic female forms, deities, and flora all at once, feral and stone-faced even as they lean into each other protectively.
Barton has been praised for finding the delicate balance between ecstasy and foreboding in her depiction of the feminine world. The highly sexualized characters that populate her universe are deeply powerful and god-like, but also vulnerable, besieged by the relentless patterning and elaborate wildlife that seems to close in on them. Barton has said in interviews that she doesn’t set out to make any kind of moral judgments about female sexuality. Rather, she admits, “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.”