Exhibition review Barbie Kjar Dick Bett Gallery, Salamanca Place, Hobart Tasmania 26 November - 10 December 1996
'...a Naead, using magic charms
And herbs too powerful, transformed young men
To silent fish, until she met that fate
Dreamy figures in the process of transformation are the subject of Barbie Kjar's recently exhibited pastel drawings and drypoint etchings. These figures who gently embrace in a wash of blue sea, frolic with hula-hoops, or sit gazing introspectively, seem to acknowledge change and the passage of time. Like the naïads, mortals and gods who populate Ovid's Metamorphoses, Kjar's figures complacently accept strange and magical transformations. As symbolic elements such as ellipsoid shapes disconcertingly transmute into eyes, slices of ripe fruit, a shoal of fish or fleeting vaginas they appear lost in thought, oblivious to the peculiar shifts which disrupt their otherwise naturalistic reality.
While change was implicit in the myths and legends that Ovid related in Metamorphoses, far from being incidental, Ovid focused on these transitions to explore the nature of change itself. His teacher, Lucretius, insisted that it was not possible to separate change from mortality and that if a thing was transformed beyond itself it meant the annihilation of what it was before. Ovid diverged from Lucretius by his exclusion of the soul from this principle. According to E.J. Kenney, Ovid's book is dominated by the idea of 'apotheosis, divinization, the supreme change to which human beings can aspire' .(2) Ovid was intrigued with human nature and the various transformations undergone through successive phases of life. Similarly, Barbie Kjar's images reflect a fascination with the vicissitudes and vagaries of existence.
Alluding to transformation, water is a recurrent element in Kjar's images. In her series of bathing nudes, a tenderly embracing couple are buoyed in the briny water of the sea. Immersed, they are caressed and emotionally enveloped in the layers of blue. Below the surface of the water the bodies distort, dissolve, meld and enlarge. Another bather sits alone weeping, the salty tears falling into the sea like rain. Acknowledging the symbolic function of water and its use in rites of passage such as baptism, Kjar suggests that the figures will emerge changed.
In contrast to the translucent and layered watery blues, images soaked in a rich blood red suggest vibrant, earthy and fecund passions. Kjar's images playfully focus on simple pleasures. Entangled lovers quench desires and adolescent girls sway their ripening bodies to the rhythm of the hoops. These images express a similar sexual exuberance to an earlier series of work by Kjar which depicted boats engorged with plums and wanton fruits.
In the images which focus on the games that girls play, Kjar considers the awkward transitional phase of pre-pubescence. The songs chanted by school girls while playing hopscotch and elastics in those few short years while impatiently waiting to grow up, Kjar suggests, anticipate patterns played out by adults. Childhood curiosity, expectations and yearnings which are soon dissipated in the wake of initiation are explored. The sense of expectation prior to change is also alluded to in Kjar's images of divers who hesitate uneasily for a moment before plunging into the water.
The girls have grown up in Kjar's drypoint etching titled Dance in which she explores courtship, love and lust. In this image young lovers , penises erect, Kjar, frolic with naked abandon and naive delight..However, even in the most light-hearted of Kjar's images there is embodied in the robust figures a suggestion of fragility and of loss, and the insistence that life and joys are transient.
Strange anthropomorphic creatures, mysterious, sometimes dangerous, inhabit many of Kjar's images. As in Ovid's book of myths and legends, changes undergone in the life of a character were often expressed metaphorically by transmutations into animal or tree forms. In the drypoint etching Whispering lizard and a shoal of fish, the woman's lover, transformed into a lizard, nips at her shoulder. The claws scratch at her arm, scars on her chest mark the passing of time. She stands partially immersed in water, fish swim at her loins. She grasps at the slippery forms which animate the sea, her eyes swim with lust.
The unpredictable and precarious nature of mortality, the various transformations undergone through sucessive phases of life, and the sense of vulnerability and loss which pervade these images are underlined by Kjar's reference to Argus of one hundred eyes. In reinterpreting Ovid's version of this myth, Kjar explores the unfortunate guard's vulnerability. Argus sits tentatively, holding his knees to his chest. Unwittingly involved in the sexual intrigue of the gods, Argus was set to watch over the nymph Io whom Jove had transformed into a white heifer to hide his indiscretions from his jealous and suspicious wife Juno. Argus was both vigilant, his eyes capable of scrutinising and piercing the world night and day, and excruciatingly sensitive with every fragile eye being hazardously exposed. Not only was Argus susceptible to the vagaries of the gods and the scratch of every insignificant bramble, but in Kjar's image, ninety eight eyes appear to gaze introspectively, piercing his own psyche, while two probe the world.
The eyes in Kjar's images swimming in water, shedding tears, melding two figures or peering from an elbow, expose as much as they reveal. While Kjar considers the transience of life in her work, Ovid inferred that death was merely another transformation. Caught by the capricious whims and loves of the gods, Argus was slain. However, all of his one hundred eyes were salvaged by Juno and can still be seen peering out from the feathered tails of peacocks...
1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Oxford: The World Classics: 1987, p. 75
2. E.J. Kenney Intro to Ovid Metamorphoses, Oxford: The World Classics: 1987, p. xvi