Synaesthesia has gained notoriety as the hip condition du jour, with musicians and artists clamouring to claim their mingled senses the source of their creativity. Looking at Del Kathryn Barton’s works however, one is confronted by some irrepressible movement, or emotion, or hum, or hiss, it is the visual equivalent of popping candy or a psychedelic train ride through the Australian bush. Barton has previously spoken of her synaesthesia – and for the receptive viewer, her paintings could well appeal to senses beyond eyesight.
Matthias Arndt, director of Berlin’s A3 gallery was first confronted by the artist’s work at the 2014 Adelaide Biennial and was struck by her “masterful draftsmanship”, the layering of detail and complexity of her works.
“Over many of our conversations,” says Arndt, “it became clear that Del wanted and needed to expand internationally.” A few months later they made plans for a solo show at his Singapore gallery.
Arndt was a recent three-year resident of Australia and “witnessed the outstanding talent and growth in the contemporary art scene,” he felt that it was underexposed internationally. This year, Australia Now, a government initiative spanning arts, culture, science and innovation set its sights on promoting Australian achievements in Germany, which opened up the opportunity for a further collaboration between Barton and A3.
“We immediately pitched this show concept to the Australian Embassy to bring the ‘best of’ Australian contemporary art to Berlin as part of this cultural exchange.”
“I don’t have ambitions as a curator,” states Barton, “but I would relish the opportunity to gather together in a beautiful gallery space, museum quality works from artists whose work I respect and admire.” The brief from Arndt was to provide her unique perspective of Australian contemporary art. The artists she selected include Brook Andrew, Pat Brassington, Dale Frank, Sally Gabori, Ramesh Nithiyendran, Patricia Piccinini, Ben Quilty and Paul Yore.
What connects these artists for Barton, are their “radical approaches to the figure.” For Yore and Nithiyendran, a wild, unorthodox exuberance reins. Piccnini and Brassington deal with the tension between seduction, strangeness and repulsion of the bodily form. The selected artists’ works run the emotional gamut. We start at the heavier end with the sombreness of Brook Andrew’s large-scale archival prints of Indigenous people who, as a kind of recompense for their overlooked anonymity, are restored gravitas in their monumental size and alluring neon lighting. Then there is the doomsaying, anguished heads of Ben Quilty’s Last Supper series. On the technicolour spectrum, Dale Frank and Sally Gabori are visual extroverts, both imbuing colour with a presence usually reserved for the figure in painting. “Each artist’s unique vision conveys its own glimpses into the mysteries of the human condition,” says Barton.
Barton herself has made two major new works for mad love. And stain through hair and flesh….and stain through fur and flesh……, which “speaks to the dichotomous urges of youth, the slow awakening of flesh” – here a neon punk child and a small pup are enthralled with one another. The second painting, hard wet features Barton’s characteristic warrior-women, a near-naked “She-beast”, the figures are tethered to each other and float among waratah leaves, their breasts exposed like benevolent weapons.
“Initially I found some of the female subjects in her work to be quite tough and disturbing,” says Arndt, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I kept returning to it, searching and looking deeper.”
To aide the curatorial process, Barton penned an automatic poem about the body, a “strange little body-love-song-brain-dump poured out of me that I disciplined myself not to edit.” Mad love is a breathless meditation on both the physicality the body possesses: ‘Body longing, always longing. Hungry body, filthy body.’ And the body’s potential to transcend into a spiritual conduit, ‘BODY as unmitigated surges of light and energy.’
And while both Arndt and Barton are eager to showcase Australian contemporary art to “a ready and keen” public in Europe, neither is concerned how an Australian-centric view of the body will be received in Germany. “For me art is a universal language and a great work of art speaks out of itself, out of the artists mind and heart directly to the viewer,” says Arndt.
Barton is reverent of the “bold history of figuration within Germanic art”. Venus of Willendorf aside, her appreciation of nudes is not confined to antiquity; she also counts herself a fan of the art that adorns the walls of Grill Royal in Berlin. “Envisage my husband and I dining on a massive tomahawk whilst laughing at a wall of neon vaginas!”
Similarly, in her first curatorial outing she is anticipating “an unapologetically outrageous, visceral figurative show,” she says.
A3 Gallery, Berlin
6 June – 1 September