Mary Barton’s paintings are located in the realm between reality and dream; somewhere between figuration and abstraction. She presents a world which is oddly familiar, yet deeply strange. Spatial considerations are paramount within all of Barton’s work: we find both shallow and deep space within individual works. Objects are placed upon planes or emerge from patches of colour, which are also positioned strategically in order to draw the viewer into the depths of the invented worlds within.
There are bits and pieces suggested of the real world – plant forms; amoebas; microscopic elements. Sometimes the paintings depict shapes that resemble strange, unearthly flora, growing in bizarre abstracted landscapes. Others display odd ‘living’ forms that float up and out from their setting and travel through the painted space which contains them. When we contemplate Barton’s paintings, we sometimes seem to be flying above a landscape; at other we are creeping through undergrowth or submerged beneath water in some kind of lagoon. In other paintings, there are layers of what seem like improvised ethnographic patterns or imagery suggestive of cave-painting.
Barton adopts a stream-of-consciousness approach to her work: one shape, or patch of colour, or area of decoration will suggest the next, and in this way the paintings are cajoled and teased into being – as much for the astonishment for the artist as for the viewer. A sense of gravity seems to have been imposed by the ways in which the paint and the ‘objects’ interact. There is a great energy in the chance encounters between the invented familiar/unfamiliar shapes. The same intuitive approach has been used for colour selection. Some of the paints used have been manufactured by the artist from natural pigments she has collected in various regions of Australia. This connects the paintings to the landscape in an almost shamanistic fashion. There is a kind of alchemical ‘magic’ evident in the works as images emerge and dissolve, and landscape and abstraction become one and the same thing. The pictures gain complexity as they begin to form, as each successive layer and image reinforces or counteracts the previous one.
Earlier artists, such as Alan Davie, Graham Sutherland and Gillian Ayres, are evoked in this mix, who all travelled similar terrain, combining personal abstract motifs with various signifiers of reality. This is still a rich area for artists to mine. Barton’s approach is always followed with great personal artistic integrity and sense of purpose. Technical and structural decisions are made according to things which emerge in the paintings, which she finds some connection with by way of her curiosity and imagination. The artist bends the ‘rules’ of picture-making to create pictures that are quite unique. But, as the great American abstractionist, Helen Frankenthaler once observed:
“There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.”
And all is swept together by the artist’s deft understanding of composition and placement and her always distinctive aesthetic choices.