2005 “On Being Painted”, catalogue essay, Professor Peter Rech, University of Cologne

On Being Painted

Peter Rech, University of Cologne

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (Wittgenstein). Nevertheless: the paintings are disturbing in their insistence on having to be looked at. One does not have to glance over them quickly. One can spend a whole day with each work. Not in the sense of a required measure of time, but rather in terms of how much one has to relinquish in order to become immersed in the subject. The paintings should be viewed cinematographically. In their expansiveness they are reminiscent of action painting. Every part of the painted surface refers back to the entirety. One needs to look from a distance in order to be able to withstand the quality of their content. But one must step right up to them to ascertain the masterfully ingenious painting technique, into which one can ‚creep’ piece by piece, as if into a ‚large turf’ by Albrecht Dürer. The paintings are not thrown together. They are compositions in the strictest sense, which make life in all its constructedness the subject. These paintings show up the facetious proposal of an integrity of life, so often aspired to in art. This accounts for their transmodernity.

Undoubtedly relevant to the despair of our times is the greed for denial: a refusal to acknowledge the reasons behind every kind of isolation. Isolation is play-acted so that it does not really have to be felt. Here, the solitude in every part of the painting denies entry.  The desire to profanely submerge oneself in it and flirt with it is constantly frustrated. Thus, in these paintings, the viewer is literally left standing, positioned above everything. He is referred back to the superficiality of religiousness. The longer he looks, the more he is subjected to a pull: to succumb to his propensity towards wholeness.


Nothing truly symbolic can develop from the imaginary.  The truly symbolic develops from the courage someone has to plunge into a medium and allow herself to be (guided by) it. Painting is preferable because the very fact that it is a medium does not have to be the central focus. Only a complete lack of theory allows symbols to be experienced. The greek word ‚symbollein’ means ‘to throw together’. Through the symbolic, we can grasp that it is only the process of evolution itself that survives.

Deborah Poynton’s paintings are mirrors. In them, the mirror stage (“le stade du miroir,” Jacques Lacan) repeats itself, in offering a passage through, all the way into the world of the ‘Other’ and into the unnameable (the through-the-looking-glass journey of “Alice in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll).  I can see a great deal, but I just can’t remember. “Where am I?” Not: “who am I?” There are people, ever increasing mulitudes. All the objects are painted separates. There are no answers. I find myself to be an intimate part of the image narration, a viewpoint bang in the middle of the events. The mood is vegetative and nervy, and most alive. As viewer one is a face in the picture. The images are not comforting. Images betray us with claims to consolation. Everything is so realistic that it appears unreal.

The images continually present internal dislocations of scale, which becomes most apparent in Surrender. In looking up, the man is delivered up to the Great. The objects around him try to correspond to his size, but only some succeed. The surrounding space seems to be contracting, as if into an inner dimension. In the end, this vertigo, this agitated dizziness, is only rendered bearable by an immeasurable verticality in the painting: the curtains striving upwards, the window frames, the grey concrete walls. 

There is no home country. No you. No God. The carnal sky is a ruddy hole. What remains, is the emblematic concatenation of all the plotted, painted people with the objects, the clothes and shoes that they are wearing, the plants and flowers, glimpses through things and distant views, like the dogs and cats, nudes and waterfalls in other images. In Deborah Poynton’s paintings the formal aspects are reversed so fittingly that they appear baroque. The heavens open up toward everything distant; the people’s gazes are toward inner heavens. Baroque painting always has skies opening up: it is anti-reformationist. Here, the photographed people are brought together with a baroque lust for composition. 

Photographed, we continue to exist. Photography has replaced the concept of the beyond. The truth of the photographed person is frozen time: these people are real, in that they were photographed. We are put together. The Real itself is no longer reality. Deborah Poynton’s paintings are about the invasion of the beautiful into the Real. The motif of beauty does not have to embellish the emptiness of life. They are so close to the romantic and the surreal, that they precisely do not work as romantic or surreal images. They are ethical, in that they do not allow any moral directives to be read into them. They have no symbolic meaning. They appear to assume a postmodern, deconstructionist stance, albeit without the usual witticisms or grandieur. They clarify the precarious fact that truth cannot be revealed through speech, as psychoanalysis ‘un-analytically’ projects. Nor may this be achieved through the letters and words with which philosophy analytically engages. Only painting can radically uncover truth (Jaques Derrida).

Poetry evades the truth, by merely playing with the letters and words. Therefore it must be an art that speaks directly from itself, and that does not get caught up in psychologically interpretable gestures. This is why the subject matter of Deborah Poynton’s paintings is so important; it never succumbs to the narcissistic pull of beauty, or of fashions in innovation, constructivism, aestheticism, stylisation; these contents do not experiment with architecture, with technique, the material or the mimetic. In the end, they do not allow the viewer to really celebrate them at all. The paintings are executed ‚on a knife’s edge,’ so to speak. Just look and be quiet at last. But what is the writer actually doing here? In the process of observing the paintings, he is beginning to allow in their limitlessness.  At the same time he is inadvertently directed by nothing other than the limitedness of the brushmarks. Man is nothing but himself, he is thrown into the world. He can bear this only if he pretends that whatever he sees is infinite and without contradictions.

In this way, the largeness of these formats protects the viewer. The size makes it possible to gather up the unportrayable in the form of thousands of mini-portraits. But not in order to glorify it, contrary to the kitsch modernist prejorative, of ‘having to make the invisible visible.’ There is nothing behind the objects, but there is a lot to be seen behind them. The people are not objectified, just as the objects are not anthropomorphosised. Everything receives equal attention. Could all this be added up to a ‚message’? More difficult still: how can this be ‚put across’ without turning it into a kind of new dogma?

This is painterliness as an elevated craft, at once deeply affected by and distanced from the seen. It multiplies all that is concrete, and presents a solipsistic universe.  It overcomes the mimetic in guided brushmarks.  The colours are not just used to illustrate, but are themselves alive. It goes beyond all imitation. Segment for segment, it is a consummate exploration of what lies, uncovered and infinite, behind all appearances. The abundance of things results in an absence. This painterliness causes an inversion of  that which has happened.

As if I could see anything at all, without pretending to myself that I know something, that I am in possession of some kind of secret. Every presumption, whatever its name – psychology, constructivism or phenomenology – misses the point: that in trying to think or reason, we have already failed. That an approach that remains dependent on empiricism to look beyond the visible must be mere masturbation. Art at least is forever trying to escape this mistaken approach.  There will always be something that can surprise us. Can art make this escape a theme in itself? Such a longing had once contributed to the development of monochromatic painting, as it had previously to the abstract inventions of Kandinsky’s. Yet both fell prey to their own standards and aims. Now, on top of it all, postmodernism is trying to understand all of this, But the deconstruction of the theoreticised requires true vision, a sense of sight that cannot be fooled. This vision needs a radical form of painting, with a radically object-ively possible approach. Such painting would even have something comforting about it in the end: I am nothing, just a little bit of evolutionary plasma. I am a nomad, a ‚naughty girl’ (certainly in the bizarre sense of Deleuze’s and Guattari’). I am ‚pupil’, I realize what must be acknowledged: that there is nothing that can be explained by any theory. I am myself, someone else, the Other, an irreconcilably lonely spanner in the works. I am long dead, I am never alone in any of the constructednesses of life. I hold on, to give myself the one real chance of life: to have no ideas any more, no aspirations, no responses (which become responsibilities). I have stopped deceiving myself. Life leads to death, and that’s all. Philosophy should be able to explain this, but cannot! We must pass over it in silence (Wittgenstein). However, painting can succeed. In Deborah Poynton’s paintings I find this more powerfully concluded than anywhere else. ‘Where’ is a place, an image. That is why I will now describe the work, painting by painting.

Perhaps the most disturbing image is the triptych Betrayal. It has to be a triptych, in the religious tradition of the Isenheim altar-piece. The trinity is substantiated by the subjects. The left hand panel depicts a public rubbish bin in glowing turquoise. The bin is ‘empty of’ rubbish, a black hole. It reappears in the turquoise of the round picnic table; behind it, on the right, a man – the traitor, shall we say – is sitting on a stool, which must be exactly like the two in front of the table. One wonders who should actually be sitting on these stools. The viewer is involved, given status through looking.

The altarpiece is merciless. A naked woman, lit from within, is ‚beheaded’ by a man’s head. Upside-down, she defines the holy centre of the image. The woman, the holy enigma, surrounded by a crowd of people, is ‚taken’, gripped prone by the powerful arm of a man, who remains unknown. She is flaunted, misused, mocked, over-‚looked’ in her need for clemency. If there could be a female Christ: then in this painting, and never again. Similarly, the man at top right closely resembles the figure of Christ, while the blonde woman top left takes up another key position. She gazes out at the viewer  brazenly, in order to dissociate herself from the woman in the centre, whose fate could just as well have been hers. Suddenly the veil is lifted: such a source, such pure, uninterrupted ‚hole-ness’, “L’Origine du Monde” (Gustave Courbet), could only have been painted a second time by Deborah Poynton.

On the two stools to the right the two women would have been sitting. The ‘betrayer’ would have played them off against each other. This is after all a man revealing himself as a gaze into a mirror, a gaze that reflects nothing and which remains a mirror. ’Thanks’ to him, the figure of Christ in the centre of the painting remains a prophecy of doom.

Whether such a reading textually goes too far, is up to each individual viewer. The heads, the clothes, the areas of skin, the plants, the rocks, the trees, the moss are stratified into a huge imaginary triangle, which is centred in the real triangle of the woman’s sex; this whole ensemble is set up against a wide sea scape, which provides contrast to the abundance of the visible, and wagers the life and death of the viewer against its own boundlessness.

The painting The Keeper, although an entirely different format, takes up again the constituent elements of Betrayal. The man who occupies this frame is the same as the one represented in the right hand panel of the latter image. The man stands – entirely naked and entirely physical – and reflects on his own doubtfulness. Protected by a walled cage, he and the chair to his left are, in the end, the same: both subjects equally show signs of aging, and both seem to be fantasising on the futility of projected desires, in their impossibility of fulfilment. Whatever I have been managing in my life, ‚has slipped through my fingers,’ the keeper could be thinking to himself. Have I stayed true to myself in my life? The question arises again as to who could be sitting on the chair. Perhaps someone whom the keeper has let go of too soon, because he couldn’t face the responsibility, because he feared the unpredictable. On the floor lie the remains of the past: car keys, an empty coke bottle, a folding ruler, a medicine packet, a pair of glasses, a roll of masking tape, the wallet, a plant slip, the suit jacket. One empty chair is left over. The man is entirely turned away from it, almost cut out on the left hand side where the light comes in, cut out of life. The letting go of the life represented here would have salvaged a last chance, which is why the man is assuming the pose of a thinker, captured against a dark night sky.  The greatest misunderstanding of all is that no longing will be fulfilled, unless one’s entire existence is given to it.

The diptych For Ever and Ever is the most secular of these paintings.. The duality underlines the ambiguity of life, in which experience is replaced by belief, and hope by experience. We see a great crowd, separated by a wide foreground with about thirty people, and the mass in the right background. The separation/apartness of perception and reality. The people are lingering in a government building, in a huge church or endless club – space is never more than a conceptual need. And time, no matter how much one clings to it, is also lost in the end. What makes all these people alike is their aloofness, the search for something bigger, the addiction, the intoxication and the impotence of not being able to let longing and yearning as such merge in their being, the hope for satisfaction of a self-sufficient desire, the ‘memory as the paradise from which one may at last be expelled’ (Jean Paul). Hence the black and white photos, inexplicably thrown into the left hand half of the right panel, which one must examine very closely before achieving one’s ‚recognition’ – as child soldier who has seen too much, as the maiden in “Death and the Maiden,” drawn to what she fears. Deborah Poynton’s For Ever and Ever is the purely visual “Much Ado about Nothing” of today. A prophetic figure holds a landscape in his right hand. In his left, money, although the trade in these images has come to nothing. The/’my’ soldier-father, floating above the head of a beautiful woman, who has such a look of religiousness about her that the notion of being ‘immaculately conceived’ becomes anew, relevant to our time.

These small, and at first hardly noticeable, ‚side-effects’ underline the necessity for the largeness of the format. The burden of life emerges under exacting observation, with respect to the sensual impressions, the thoughts and conclusions. This kind of seeing might occur when one at long last stops believing in an aim in life. It is impossible to draw from Deborah Poynton’s paintings a placable certainty, suggesting that the sum might be any more than the parts. All is piecemeal. But what is it that holds the paintings together? Nothing at all, actually nothingness, absence, void. Deborah Poynton’s paintings are ultra-modern, in much the same way that existentialism was once fashionable, before we could conceive of existence without anything under or behind it.

Why would a lot of people to come together in one place, as is the theme of the diptych Safety and Security? Whenever people gather together, or convene, they do so for incomprehensible reasons. What lets them come together is pure sociology, and as such pure tautology, at all events not psychology. The police state, the longing for God (the red sky in remembrance of social realism), the horizontal as an equalisation of people, are the driving mechanism of this painting. The couple on the far right of the right hand panel have earnt their peace. The naked woman in the middle has stepped out from the image as if ‘beside herself’, and makes the scene behind her into a picture within a picture. I would be her, if I were young enough and girl enough (the realisation: Picasso’s virgin with the light, appearing here as light). The hardcore viewer far left is the ‘peg’, the entry point-of-view. ‘I’ can go into his ’self.’ Deborah Poynton’s images lead the viewer back to himself.

This happens most ostensibly in the triptych Surrender. The middle panel, taking up about three-fifths of the huge format, is filled with the man whom we have already encountered in ‘Betrayal’ and ‘The Keeper’. He lies there, once again completely naked, in a pose that, although compositionally lucid, remains enigmatic. Is he in the process of consciously dying? Is he having a vision? Facing enlightenment? Or is he used up, after the ‘climax’ of his life? And why is he ‘just so’ alone, ‘just so’ solitary? Or is it solitude as the ultimate happiness? He lies on the objects of a subordinated life: an art magazine, a belt, tissues, a little box of keep-sakes, a photo (his mother?), a hole punch, a tie, a ballpoint pen, a drinking glass, an egg-timer, a wire hanger, a spoon, an envelope of photos, a ‘radiant’ car advertisement, an unopened condom, far left a CD, on it a used tissue; all these things in their enumeration sound like a poem; they are simply the man’s ‘other side.’ Above the man the ‘habitation’ continues, the ‘habituation’ to life, the ordinariness, the ’co-habitation.’ On the left hand side the garden view, a long foresaken world. Everything is pieced together, a composite approach we are otherwise aware of only in Henri Rousseau’s paintings. There is absolutely no more cohesion in the painting. Hence the side panels. From the left: the plastic and aluminuim window frames, the view into the garden like a glimpse into a primeval forest, the exotic flowered curtain, autumnal magic flowers, green, violet, the white lily in the middle, almost alive, the complement to the penis in the centre of the middle panel. Then, on the right the dark folding of the door frame, and the oddly misguided view into the primeval garden, as if it had already been wholly internalised. Again a section of curtain, this time in pink and yellow-green folds: all these boundaries frame a question. Where is the moment of ecstasy? The answer is to be found in the man’s face: I see and in the same moment I relinquish myself.

The time has come for me to apologise for my words so far. In the end, words destroy the subject in describing it conceptually. It is bizarre to look for words for what can only be seen in paintings. Deborah Poynton is a medium through which painting speaks.