Menzies Art Brands



The relationship between artist Del Kathryn Barton, her audience, and the outlandish but very human images that find their way onto her canvas is a complex one. In classical Archibald portraiture—where Barton claimed the premier prize in 2008 and 2013—the artist often seeks to lay bare the inner workings of the sitter in a manner that builds on and finally transcends the notion of true likeness. The artist makes the subject’s painted image communicate directly with the viewing audience by manipulating the gaze of both the sitter and audience. In many of Del Kathryn Barton’s images, the gaze of each is turned inward to pierce the armour of ‘the self’. The picture surface is embellished in a myriad of tiny painted marks as if the artist were an abiding quilt-maker, fabricating the canvas with painted ‘needlepoint’. This threaded sensibility appears like female armour, the fabric of catwalk extravaganza, going well beyond the notion of decoration. While European masters such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) created rich drapery to sexually glorify his fashionable female subjects, in the recent 2012 work In Night Too Barton uses a different kind of painted fabrication to strip herself bare, overtly liberating an anxious sexuality. Her breasts, hair, eyes, eye makeup, lipstick, fingernail polish, scarf are all as a young hip female might report them: with misgivings. This exaggerated uncertainty is the essence of the contemporary feminine referenced in the image, tacking fashionably in the opposite direction to Klimt. Barton has noted: ‘I look at a lot of fashion to see the contrary ways society is celebrating and defining female beauty.’1

The layered surfaces show a quirky femaleness that ‘cannot hide what is underneath’.2 After all, Barton’s paintings are part of the generation of the selfie: provocative, fashionable, chic porn that is unafraid of the reveal. Under the cover of darkness In Night Too seems to invoke untalked-of sexual taboos involving female breasts: breastfeeding, the physical discomforts associated with it, and its ironic fecundity so often hidden from public view.  Her web cam pose with self-fondled breasts brings sensuality to the grey-flecked nocturne in a manner that goes beyond the established male-gaze traditions of Klimt or the latter day conventions of Playboy or The Sun page 3. 

Is the painting calibrated as a lustless venture? Barton’s painted flesh is popish flat and very distant. In a catalogue entry to her 2005 exhibition at Melbourne’s Karen Woodbury Gallery, Barton hints at the ‘surface subterfuge’ and reveals that ‘we lie with the surfaces of our bodies… all my work connects to aspects of the self, of myself that I am most uncomfortable with’.3 Lustless? On the contrary: this work is a large fabric of a canvas in mediums that stain with emotional impact. Parts of the image hint at make-up stains and bed linen highlighted by the water-based media – synthetic polymer paint, watercolour, and ink. No macho abstract expressionist oil is slung about, yet her surfaces are built up in painstaking layers that do not kill off the quirky freshness. In the end, it is Barton’s drawn line that sizzles rather than the overlaid embossings of paint. Her line follows the tracery of an umbilical cord, with all its life-bearing juices, to swerve about the canvas with insightful confidence, weaving a catwalk bodice of snake, mistletoe and ribbon.


1. Frost, A., ‘50 of Australia’s Most Collectible Artists 2007 – Del Kathryn Barton’, Australian Art Collector, 39, January-March 2007, p.99

2. Colless, E., ‘Del Kathryn Barton’s Heavy Petting’, Australian Art Collector, 38, October-December 2006, p.134

3. Frost, A., ‘50 of Australia’s Most Collectible Artists 2005 – Del Kathryn Barton’, Australian Art Collector, 35, January-March 2006, p.90

Professor Peter James Smith
BSc (Hons); MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD

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