Jacqui (Jacqueline) Nolte
in: ‘Deborah Poynton’, 1998
Deborah Poynton is a painter, committed to a sophisticated investigation of what the act of seeing involves. Her works exhibit discerning attention to the mechanics of light and paint, the power of the ‘gaze’ and the task of commenting on time within a frame-bound stasis. As painter she examines the location of her own observation and, in so doing, reflects on the particularity of her position in relation to others. That she has lived, and studied, in an assortment of places seems to have sharpened this perception of situation. Based primarily in South Africa she has also lived and studied in Swaziland, England and the USA. Definitions of ‘home’ in her work balance a presumed safety of domestic interiors with careful observation of the complexities of organic and urban growth beyond their pictured curtains, divides and containing walls. It is how she positions the human body in her work that ultimately identifies these concerns with security. The relation to self (as woman), and to other (as man) is a major factor in this testing of grounds. Ultimately it is this insistence on the personal as the premise from which understanding is forged that distinguishes Deborah’s work. But equally it is the recognition that understanding is most often elusive and lies always further than the boundaries known and seen by ‘self’. It is this recognition which infuses her definition of realism.
Hers is a concern with the ‘material’ of realism, a textured vision, an imaging of layers of earth, body, home, of memory and desire. This concern encompasses a particularity of detail, dimensions, the ‘fit’ of things, a comprehensive viewing from all points and uncompromising light on every part, and a meticulous sensitivity to the tactility of all that which is seen. It is the sensuality of the pictured surfaces that pushes the viewer into the realm of desire, both thwarted and possible. Most acute is the search for safety with ‘other’ and for ‘home’. Always there is a consciousness of the fragility of the given exteriors which promise safety within. Always there is a vulnerability in the physical body as well as in the attempts to establish a continuum between what is interior and exterior. It is this tension beneath the luxuriant surfaces that allows the viewer into that undefinable space of what constitutes the given. These are pictorial spaces where the emotional residue of what has been experienced vies with imagined or desired possibility. Both are posed as visible realisms yet neither as reality.
Accepting the traditions of painters’ seeing, and the relations of their viewing as fixed, is not Deborah’s interest. As woman painter she redefines the power of the ‘gaze’ in an attempt to find an equivalence of power relations. Hers is not a power over the observed model, but an attempt to reinstate a shared intimacy (imagined/desired/at times experienced). In these works the ‘gaze’ is less about objectification than an enjoyment of ‘gaze’ which sets itself up as voyeuristic frame, to then be imploded by its ironic devices or deconstructions of histories of style.
The deconstruction of the art historical (male) ‘gaze’ plays itself out in her assimilation of technical learnings combined with less respectful references to framing traditions. Playful allusions range from the dissections of Flemish masters, to Pre-Raphaelite fantasy, ‘plein air’ encounters, ‘wild beast’ liberties, the agonistics of new objectivity, the impossibility of morality in the relentless materialism of pop and new realism and to reclamation of personal memory amongst post-modern painters. Deborah Poynton’s work accomplishes an intelligent sweep across this figurative painterly trajectory, all the while interrogating the functions of ‘realism’ and ‘reflection’. Simultaneously it asserts the seriousness of its task of combining sight, insight and painterly practice.
In Sex & Sensibility, vision is a vehicle of desire and appraisal.
The work seems to promise fulfillment in its picturing of various comforts, from the naked male body shrouded in tendrils of unkempt hair, the promise of gentleness in his relaxed pose, and the array of tastes and textures on the teatable to his side. Despite this construction of the sumptuous it is its deconstruction in the detail reflected in the mirror that forms the focus of this work.
In Nicholas and Deborah, the painter contemplates her relation to self through her familial and love relations.
With back to viewer, as purveyor of pictures, she gazes at a family photo album, while before her lies her picturing of male ‘model’ suspended in repose. The historical relation of artist to model is inverted in this exposure of a man, unclothed, in the intimacy of his reverie, rendered here as personal and private subject. While he is thus suspended, she reconstitutes herself through the operation of her ‘gaze’, assuming her part in historical and present time.
Placing her relationship to men in a broader scheme of familial memory, she reflects on the meaning of intimate associations. In the process, sexual discourse is uncovered to reveal the intricate personal negotiations involved. A survey of these images of unclothed men reveals a range of attitudes on the part of the painter, from humorous deconstructions of model as a possible object of desire, to sensual enjoyment, to oblique references to thwarted intimacy (as pictured, Holbein-like, in the convex mirror of Sex & Sensibility. At times these relations are delivered to the viewer in the full intimacy of their exchanges as in Holiday in Germany and The Dream 1997.
As easily as detail is rendered to portray the ‘desirable’ so too is it used to describe a state of affliction.
In Self Portrait with Fur Collar, a single tendril of hair escapes from behind the ear of the painter’s image of self, the only signature of life on this canvas. She positions herself without comfort, in bleak grey surrounds, on a hard blue formica chair. Her shoed heel is drawn up to her body, pointing past the crumpled drawn up dress, to reveal her pubic area, shroud-like, beneath her black mesh tights. This is a precise realism to speak of exhausted material delights, the fatigue of willful decadence, the reality of that which is expendable. With tragicomic overtones of Neue Sachlichkeit interwar imagery of liberated women, the painter drapes herself in the apparel of such sophisticates of yester-year, exposing the dishevelled experiences beneath the decayed veneer of control. This is an image of a woman used up, without stature and bereft of hope for respectful sexual exchange. The body is positioned without integral support, as if leaning off-frame for support. At this point the sophistication of this construction becomes apparent as the viewer, in musing on the nature of this support of self needs recognise that the arm extends to portray the very act of painting that which we currently observe. The construed inactivity and depression of the portrait transforms in a recognition of this singularly important act of self definition – the act of painting -which allows the painter to reflect on, and thus restore self-purpose and dignity.
Between a rock and a hard place, also questions constructions of woman.
Here a naked woman, but for knee-high leather boots and fur jacket, stands against the steep slope of rocky terrain. This ground forms part of the foundation of a solid institutional structure in the distance. What is odd about this is her naked positioning outside of the parameters of the imposing structure, and in a sense, outside of associated possible prescriptions. She wears the tired apparel related to ‘women’s’ business of attracting sexual ‘favours’. Out of the confines of domestic space she is exposed as that which is offered up for use and viewing like any other physical site. Yet there is a defiance in model and painter assuming this guise for woman, making evident the pretense of disguise in this traditional game of femme fatale. The tall figure is emphasised by the narrow dimensions of the canvas. This confining of outside space, together with the precarious gradient and the awkward juxtapositions of high heeled boots and rocky ground, contributes to the sense of mock danger of the assumed roleplay. Sharp contrasts of light and the almost neon glow of her body hair and clothing are played up against her face cast in shadow, defiant in expression. It is this expression which the viewer is forced to encounter only after moving ones sight upwards from boots to exposed torso and finally to shadowed head, and at this point must choose whether to engage with the complexity of character or the ease of her body. This is a game assumed in this image to reveal both the appeal and inevitable decay of flesh, a game where the stakes are often higher than expected, where institutions are always lurking to receive those who don’t survive and where initial mirth and certitude can slide as quickly into nervous depression.
Myth, examines legends of the meaning of male and female conjugation.
It is a diptych, the dividing line of which emphasises the separateness of the depicted woman (self portrait) and man (Nicholas of aforementioned paintings). The figures float in a space of contradictions, a world viewed from above and from below, a time that is day yet niqht. sun-drenched yet stormy. As if in sleep they assume their part in a far larger scheme of events, its beauty they are pictured as not seeing. It is their interior reality that is contrasted with vibrant external detail, from glowing hibiscus to near-neon moss and luxuriant growth. An intuitive understanding of this vast continuum of space and time is suggested in the presence of the cat positioned to survey all from above. These continuities are also reflected in that strange rock pool at their feet, which mirrors the sky and serves as source of life for delicate swallow, butterfly and tortoise. The seeming inversion of space in this pool re-emphasises this transformation from the ‘real’ to the surreal, this possible place where all presumed opposites are reconciled. Stylistic references pull across centuries in this construct of timeless space, its most recent references to fantasies of the sixties. The question of ‘home’ and ‘origin’ is brilliantly indicated in these citations of technique and of origin myths and is most elegantly stated in that simple fantasy of the two windowed open-doored house, warmly lit and awaiting the entry of whomever trusts its offerings. What and whether or not we see the fabric of our world determines where we find ourselves. It is this question of the status of choice which seems to underscore this image of somnambulistic cohabitation.
In another reflection on place and the security of relations Deborah again uses format and dimension to frame the nature of her questions. In Daily Life (80x140cm), 1996, her musings on the relationship of self to ‘other’ are presented as if arranged in a cross-section of a dollhouse.
The vertical format is divided into eight squares, each pair below the other. A remembered past is presented in fable form as if to trace the origins of a tragicomic need to be seen and loved. The latter is indicated in one frame in the form of the painter offering herself up as part of a feast of luscious fruits upon a table at which a man sits, he neither seeing nor tasting these offerings. In the frame below this the irony of identity through the eyes of another is indicated by the flickering TV screen and a further awkward presentation of self to unseeing mate. Throughout these frames sticky fruits, childhood paraphernalia, kaleidoscopic colours and glowing interiors promise an antidote to the fear of future isolation. The latter is glimpsed through the windows of these framed interiors but is pictured explicitly in the bottom left image. In these allegorical moments of growing-to-adulthood what is pictured is the child coming to an understanding of her need to be seen, her desire for closeness, creative expression and acknowledgement. Whether pictured as smaller-than or larger-than-life, she asks for confirmation from other and tries to reflect on associated constrictions of her vision. That she shrinks these dilemmas into dollhouse scenarios is indicative of the amusement that marks much of the reverie in her works.
The Dream, (100x200cm), 1997, is a painting of a couple (self portrait and Niklas) positioned in the foreground, and behind whom stretches an urban scape to the distant mountainous perimeter of broader Cape Town.
The figures are illuminated by harsh artificial lighting and the city by a circuit of electricity which winds its way around a grid of neighbourhood blocks. The shimmering surface of evening blue is punctuated by the multiple concentric circles of white, yellow and orange, glowing, Van Gogh-like, off the canvas. There is a strange fusion of organic and mechanical markings on the surface of this canvas, the former ironically describing the roofless grid of city dwellings, and the latter of which describe the human form with meticulous regularity. Together, these markings create a striated vibrating surface which raises questions about the relationship of the inhumane urban environs ‘consciously’ constructed by humans and the complexity of the ‘divine’ energy which manifests in our own physical bodies. One of the figures in the foreground sleeps, the other sits, awake, as if contemplating the patterns of the unconscious which emerge from this city at night, which clothe her lover in sleep, and whose comfort she does not assume as her own. This is a painting about shared love as but one factor in finding one’s way through our physical world, yet a factor which allows for that combination of comfort and vulnerability displayed by the sleeping figure. It is significant that this vulnerability is rendered in the male form and psyche, with woman as conscious purveyor in the image. This is another indication of Deborah Poynton’s assumption of initiative as woman painter in a tradition defined by allusions to the privilege of the male gaze.
The redress of patriarchal tradition occurs in works such as The Dance.
As in other of her works, the insistent presence of the painter in the image asserts woman’s role as active purveyor, as lover and as meditative individual. In this image she stands, back to the viewer, with naked torso. She appears to exercise restraint by supporting herself with arms folded behind her back. Closely positioned o the entirely naked male figure before her she appears to contemplate his confidant repose and his steady engagement with her and the public’s scrutiny. They are positioned as if bound in a configuration of what is ‘male’ and what is ‘female’. The title of this work alludes to the delicate negotiations of these same prescriptive patterns of behaviour. Sexual as well as psychic energies are written into the shadowed forest of saplings scattered over the risen mound/hillock behind the figures. Mythic rites of fertility and definitions of heterosexual encounter frame this attempt at a personal encounter. Of particular interest is that the weight of this baggage lies in the sympathetic rendering of male consciousness in this portrait of Niklas thus rendered as subject.
Where are we going?, is another profoundly moving canvas which reflects on the possible site ot the irreproachable, in the face of scrawling urban pleasures and destitution.
A man stands naked, back to viewer, and surveys the city and its surrounding zones. His vantage point is that of privilege, allowing for reflection. He stands outside of the desperation of homelessness, the abusive, the revellers, the bowed commuters, and those who seek comfort before the glow of street braziers or blinking television screens. As if able to think beyond this microscopic detail, his positioning speaks of the desire to escape this and to claim an identity in the unspoken ideal of space beyond these signs of ‘culture’. And yet his nakedness refers back to what it is that constitutes the ‘irreproachable’. The answer lies somewhere in the suffusing beauty of this image. Beautifully proportioned, this canvas is bathed in the warm brown, pinks and oranges of Capetonian mountain-scapes. Subtle tonal ranges are laid down in controlled striations to describe a crisp and precise vision. These russet surfaces define the continuous physical surfaces and are reflected in intensified hues in shadow areas. An undulating highway leads one’s eye toward an alternatively defined space and connects the flesh of the figure in foreground to the expansive space beyond. There is a sensuality of treatment that overrides the anonymity, poverty and congestion below. The eye is led to the flight of three swallows amidst a gentle mix of pinks, lilacs and greens. This is a vision that speaks of seeing through the haze of the city, into its bowels and beyond. It speaks of the courage to see the detail but also the elusive whole. The liberation of the depicted figure lies in the suggestion of its ability to recognise the limits of human endeavour while all the while celebrating that which is possible.
The minutiae of that which comprises the present is all that we know, the detail of which crowds into these singular visions and claims its status. Gently the artist rearranges these physical relations, viewer’s orientation, juxtapositions of scale and scope within, the purposeful clothing or unclothing of bodies to query this substance of the moment. The full bodied weight of her figures are positioned to examine their very locations of power and safety. Finally, it is her insistence on revealing the importance of intimate human relations that in the end asserts a realism more convincing than the picture’s surrounding material detail. Stripped of these telling surrounds the figures would still evince weight, beauty, some-time uncertainty, but without that telling context which allows us to understand the human dilemma of how to navigate the seeming evidence of present time.
© 1998 Jaqui (Jacqueline) Nolte