Tasmanian artist Barbie Kjar is widely known for her portraiture, her distinctive style and use of colour, and the whimsical quality that is characteristic of her figurative works.
Kjar was born in Burnie, Tasmania in 1957 and completed a Bachelor of Fine Art at the University of Tasmania, as well as a Master of Fine Art at RMIT, Melbourne. Prior to her visual arts studies, Kjar studied English and Education, and literature has been a persistent influence on her practice. The artist has cited a range of writers including Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson as influences, while the work Come to me, oh green glass buoy 1996, from the DCC Permanent Collection, is based on a poem of the same title by Tasmanian author Sue Moss. Furthermore, the sea and dance have also been discussed by Kjar as being personal influences reflected in her practice. The DCC Permanent Collection holds three of Kjar’s works, spanning a period from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. Though Kjar’s practice has broadened since this period, with sculpture now increasingly a focus of the artist, her work continues to be imbued with the distinct style for which she is known, and of which the DCC works are examples.
While Kjar’s work is visually distinct, her unique personal perspective on portraiture and its processes contributes to the distinctness of her work. Kjar views portraiture as a deeply personal process that evolves and develops over time, rather than entertaining the belief that a work can be planned in detail from the outset. She has referred to the process as a conversation, wherein it is essential that both the artist and the subject are open to a degree of exposure. This conversation takes time; time which Kjar is willing to devote in order for those sitting for her portraits to become comfortable, and in turn open to being truly observed.
This sensitivity allows Kjar to extract and convey the narratives revealed within her sitters, exploring the story of a person, rather than simply capturing their likeness. Rather than attempting to present a biographical narrative, Kjar pursues the essence of the person, derived both from conversation and an acute observation of their facial features and expressions. This process reflects Kjar’s assertion of the fundamental importance of the eyes and the gaze in portraiture.
The time Kjar spends with the subjects of her portraits extends further to her process. She begins drawing from life, using charcoal or watercolour, before determining her point of focus. Kjar has been drawing since school, and although working across a variety of mediums, she has expressed a particular affinity for printmaking. Having studied etching, lithography and screen printing at the University of Tasmania, Kjar discovered her likening to the feeling of peeling off the paper after running the plate through the press.
Known for her drypoints, having been referred to as one of the great masters of the medium by art critic Sasha Grishin, Kjar uses an electric engraver to achieve lines that appear hand drawn, and have been praised recurrently for their velvety quality. Works such as Falling Cups 1993 from the DCC Permanent Collection evidence this skill, while reflecting Kjar’s goal; ‘to draw people well, really well… and to seek symbols and layers which investigate the meaning of life’ (Barbie Kjar, ABC Radio interview with Barbara Pongratz, Artist’s facial fascination, 29th August 2003).
-Erin Wilson, Curator of Collections