Del Kathryn Barton’s work explores the taboo intersection of nature and sexuality. The Aussie artist has a fierce work ethic and even fiercer commitment to feminism. Her recent short film RED is a wild aesthetic ride that features Cate Blanchett, and her first American solo show are you bunny? recently went up in New York.
CONVICTS recently caught up with Barton and got her word on the symbolism of bunny rabbits, the importance of putting one’s ass on the line, and the importance of serious play.
Hey there. To start can you introduce yourself and tell us where you’re from?
Hi, my name is Del Kathryn Barton and I live in Sydney. I grew up in a semi rural area on a goat farm. I had a pretty idealized, connected to the land, run wild in the bush kind of childhood.
Did you grow up with art in the house?
Although my parents are educators and I was exposed to a lot of good literature and film, I didn’t have much exposure to galleries. The interest in art came from my obsessive and compulsive connection of drawing. My exposure to galleries and the art didn’t happen until my early twenties. In connection to that, my dad was always a hoarder, he liked collecting things and building things and being resourceful. I did a lot with hands growing up.
What did he like to hoard?
He use to collect so many things. One of the most interesting things that comes to mind are broken down water tanks. Because it was a really, really large property he’d find stuff and keep it. He had about fifty or sixty broken down rusty water tanks.
Do you know what about the tanks did he love?
My dad was a great fixer. It was less about aesthetic and more about being able to use those materials in another context. My dad was a failed minister and moved up to the country. It took him about fifteen years to rebuild our farmhouse as an untrained worker. So I grew up living in tents and badly made sheds. That taught me if you have a vision-no matter how long it takes or how small the resources might be-through perseverance and commitment you can find your dreams.
Do you find that when working with different or unfamiliar mediums, that attitude comes into play?
I’ve always upheld serious play. Although my practice is on one level very disciplined and realized, there is always that willful, audacious child self that needs to keep pushing and failing and discovering. In many ways as a mid-career artist, that energy that really compels the practice. I also feel very blessed. In my twenties there was so much investigation and failure, to then find the core practice after tens years of extreme experimentation is a blessing.
Talk about your process. Is it that trial and error on a piece by piece basis?
If I start a work knowing that it’s going to take an incredible level of commitment and six months to complete, I need to feel like my ass is on the line. I need to feel the risk, so I can make it work come hell or high water.
What’s your relationship like with your unfinished works?
The works in the studios are like companions too. I need to live with them and let them breathe. I do suffer from anxiety. One level of my anxiety is that if I make them and release them I haven’t really had a moment in time with them.
How many works would you have in the studio at a time?
I’m a bit of a maniac, I may have about three or four works that have deadlines and a real committed energy behind them. But I like to be working on probably thirty to forty things that I simultaneously. I do need the charge of different ways of working creatively.
What, outside of creative energy itself, gives you that momentum to keep working? Are you highly caffeinated?
As a hardcore working mom, the main things are caffeine and alcohol. I’m the sort of person that looks for intensity in life. I do find that I can recuperate very quickly. Being a mother means everything to me, and I can’t live without those long days in the studio but then when I walk into the house, the engagement you feel with your children and my husband, that really feeds me.
Tell me about the show r u a bunny??
r u a bunny?? is my first solo show with Albert Splinda. I’m rarely making a body of work that only speaks to one thing. The painting r u a bunny?? was the first painting I finished, and the reason to title the show that. r u a bunny?? is a picture of a young female protagonist.
During my twenties, I dated an American boy and spent a lot of time in California. One thing I really resonated with was the idea in Native American history that the bunny is a custodian of innocence. It’s connected to nudity and the vagina in a protecting sense. Also, I have four studio wives now: two humans, two wolfies and my most recent studio wife: Cherry Bomb. She’s a french bull dog, and I always say to her “r u a bunny??”
Talk about those years in California.
I did suffer from depression and anxiety and back then it wasn’t diagnosed. My mother was really holistic, so I had a lot social phobias. It was really life changing when I started taking medicine. If i went through some mainstream system I would’ve had better health from a young age. So I actually came out to California to do holistic therapy. Now it is so easy to document our lives and the fact that i didn’t document my life more in my twenties feels a little bit sad to me now.
Tell me about RED and the film?
So RED was an amazing project but it nearly killed me. I had a bunch of emotional break downs making it-mainly because I’m a perfectionist. I came out of that very scarred but very addicted to the medium of film.
I built some really incredible relationships. It initially started as a self-funded project and I was incredibly engaged and intrigued about the sexual proclivities of the red back spider. The footage was also never really captured, so that was really interested. But it soon became a very epic process and much bigger project than I expected. We applied for a funding opportunity and then I was able to cast some really talented people.
Australian character is so tied up with the vastness of the land. Does that theme come through in your work?
Not on the surface of my practice, really at the core of my practice. Being in the bush was a very easy place for me to be. In that context, I built a really strong symbolic relationship between being calm, present and alone in the bush. A sensory place is very important to me. The energy of the Australian landscape is really important to who I am and the rejuvenation of my creative spirit.
On the other end of the spectrum: how does it feel to have a solo exhibition in New York?
I’m so excited to have a solo exhibition in New York. I’m very blessed to be working with an agency now which makes international exhibitions more accessible.
What do you feel going into a opening night?
Because making my work is such a love affair, I’ve developed great skill at releasing my paintings. After they leave the studio, they are dead to me. Opening night is just a acute sense of anxiety and torture that I think only other artists will understand. My expectations are less since this is an unfamiliar place, so its unknown. I hope I’ll be able to enjoy myself. I literally only know two people who live in New York.
We’ll end on a dark one. Talk about the word ‘destruction.’
Thats a question I’ve never been asked. Which is awesome. Destruction comes from a core place. I would call myself a feminist, and while doing RED, I was really angry as a feminist.
Hear that Kathryn. Thanks for the chat.