The Compulsive Power of Deborah Poynton:
At the opening, Michael Stevenson Contemporary was packed with art-lovers so benumbed by Deborah Poynton’s mesmerising canvases that they reacted like stunned mullet. Certainly her six huge works filled me with thrilled admiration. Not only does the artist handle the grandest scale with authority, she also integrates multiple interlocked figures within a teeming plethora of crisply focused details.
Although this miraculous record of the surface of things leaves one wonder-struck at the potential richness of our visual experience, it does not preclude Poynton from delving into the dark flipside of the seen. Malign psychological reverberations echo and boom as she ventures into a dim psychic underworld and activates our primal emotions of dread, lust, tension and doubt.
Poynton’s compulsive power lies in the way she conveys both the beauty and terror of existence, and visual rapture at the sight of a universe revealed within a grain of sand. The figuring of timber, a wisp of straw or strand of hair assume an hallucinatory vitality in her paintings where infinitesimally small details are rendered with a vivid microscopic exactitude that is sustained over the entire vast canvas. The eye cannot rival this precision, and the abundance of sharply delineated minutiae lends her work a visionary intensity. Realism is suffused with such magic, never lapsing into humdrum description. Nor does detail distract, the compositional focus always remains salient because of the brilliance of the artist’s old master pictorial architecture.
Poynton decisively upstages the competition at this exhibition by three women artists. Tracey Payne and Diane Victor are gifted artists, but their work lacks Poynton’s sizzle and wow. In her tiny showing, Payne’s rose paintings seem as wispy as the aquarelles of some cooing Edwardian maiden lady celebrating the beauties of copse and dell. The flowers are as prettily, prettily pink as a bride’s bouquet, and all intimations of mortality are smothered in florist’s ribbon, wire and greeting card calligraphy.
Diane Victor is a superb technician: her charcoal drawings are never less than immaculate, but her exorbitant prowess verges on ostentation, and reminds one of a drawing master’s virtuoso demonstration in the life class. This somewhat desiccated professorial bent also makes itself felt in Victor’s obsession with allegory, myth and arcana. Obscurity can masquerade as profundity, and one wonders if what lies behind her baffling imagery is true mystery or mere sleight of hand.
Poynton’s arrant realism provides echoes of Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, Eric Fischl and Philip Pearlstein. However, her habits of mind are shaped by her intensely religious upbringing and passion for Netherlandish Renaissance painting. Poynton confirmed my view that much of her work consists of cautionary images underpinned by a late medieval symbolical apparatus.
The Last Resort emits echoes of The Adoration of the Golden Calf and The Crossing of the Red Sea, and files a report on the state of the nation, asserting that South Africa has lost its bearings (note the prominence of the disused mooring poles) and succumbed to the false gods of materialism and globalism. The painting is crammed with freshly manufactured commodities: the bar-coded ball, toilet paper, dark glasses, cellphones, towels and most significant of all, the Lilo-like edifice reminiscent of a temple and emblazoned with the McDonalds logo and clown.
Poynton uses this merchandise to evoke our culture of consumption, however she delivers her verdict in an emblematic language, for The Last Resort is a modern dress version of both 17th century Vanitas paintings and allegories of the senses. The arched McDonalds’ structure functions as a Memento Mori and its pneumatic quality likens it to the Homo Bullens and other emblems of transience. The beach ball and toilet paper (which also invokes smell) allude to touch; the McDonald’s logo to taste; the cell-phone to hearing and the dark glasses to sight. In the context of a Vanitas, such symbols imply that hedonistic materialism leads nowhere.
Traders, a scene of a crowded street market, conflates iconographic elements drawn from Nativities and Resurrections to question whether national regeneration is possible. At first sight, the painting seems a piece of outright naturalism but detail indicates all is not what it seems. Market this may be, but there is nothing on sale beyond plums, and the shoppers forage amidst rubble.
The promise of spiritual regeneration implicit in symbols of Easter and Nativity (the hay of the manger, baby chicks, sarcophagus, cows standing for the ox and the ass) conflicts with the rest of the symbolical framework. This includes emblems of Vanity (mirror, balloons, mannequin’s head), Truth (a near naked woman invisible to the crowd), Folly
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(an Indian lady who doubles as jester and fool and carries the traditional scepter), the fates, Atropos holding the knife, and Lachesis with her measuring rods, and an incomplete flyover replacing the smashed pagan buildings of the Renaissance.
Golden Acre portrays our dark night of the soul. On the freeway bisecting Adderley Street, we see seven ghostly figures at the crossroads during a partial blackout. The ominous cloudscape assumes apocalyptic suggestions of the Great Flood, while the pedestrian tunnel over the highway suggests the gangplank to Noah’s ark. Although the Christmas lights which include our national animal, the Springbok, and the candle of Christian faith, hint at a new order, the outcome is uncertain for the figures embodying the seven ages of man include no child.
From collective history we move to personal history, and the pivot of the next triptych is a nude family portrait of Poynton, her husband and baby. A harrowing neo-baroque interplay occurs between viewer and sitters. Husband and wife are placed in such proximity to us that they almost share our space, and this propinquity is made all the more uncomfortable as we are cast in the role of trespassing voyeurs who have disturbed their lovemaking.
The couple’s gaze interlocks with ours as they stare us down, embarrassed by our intrusion, and strained by their attempt to preserve the appearance of marital harmony. The scarred stomachs and distressed baby generate further unease as does the ugly setting, half inside, half outside; the aggressive thingy materiality of bricks and furniture, and the inconsistencies of scale and perspective.
The two flanking paintings provide a gloss on these tensions. Although Poynton uses sex as a metaphor for her husband’s self-obsession in Slapstick, she nevertheless rejoices lovingly in his physicality by portraying him naked no less than ten times. At the centre of Safe House, a murky domestic interior, occurs a table cluttered with objects emblematic of the decencies of family life. Upright morality is embodied by Christian symbols (fish and the censer), while household utensils (brush and pan, window-cleaner) state that cleanliness is close to godliness just as they do in 17th century Dutch genre.
The threat of crime is conveyed by the burglar bars, chain, torch, wallet and cellphone which are juxtaposed with inherited silver and cut-glass decanters. Poynton’s wardrobe of clothes alludes to her different roles as wife, mother, domestic drudge, artist and girl about town. In a mirror we glimpse the empty canvas looming above like a reproach, an accusation of dereliction of duty. The artist uses these three intimate autobiographical works to illuminate her grand public paintings, and vice versa, making this an exceptionally cohesive hang.
© 2004 Lloyd Pollack