One’s first reaction to ‘Safety and Security’, Deborah Poynton’s third show at Michael Stevenson Contemporary, is awed enthralment, for one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the bludgeoning scale of the work. Poynton’s colossal diptychs and triptychs measure 200 x 600 cm and thus they rival the immense dimensions of American Pop and Abstract Expressionist works.
An outright theatricality too reinforces this gob-smacked fascination. Showmanship is Poynton’s forté. Despite their layered subtleties, her four paintings are true barnstormers, thrilling feats of illusionist skill that combine tumultuous action, vast multitudes and fantastic settings with climactic sunbursts and sunsets to create the cymbal-clashing effects of crescendo we associate with the grand salon show-stoppers of Turner and Delacroix.
The artist’s technique is equally riveting, for she applies microscopic detail to billboard gigantism. Depth of field becomes infinite, and distance neither blurs the unrelentingly crisp focus, nor diminishes the shrill brilliance of colour. This mix of lumbering scale, fierce chromatic intensity and a proliferation of minute naturalistic detail results in numbing visual overload. Paradoxically, Poynton’s faithful description proves so exhaustive that it gives rise to a sense of phantasmagorical irreality. The barrage of exactly defined minutiae simulates the crystalline precision of a drug-induced trance, and engenders an equally hallucinatory response.
The inflated scale and sweeping panoramic formats of Poynton’s compositions envelop the viewer like a cyclorama. The image occupies our entire field of vision, and prevents us from seeing anything else. For the moment the paintings become the world, and that world proves mesmerising, for Poynton’s scenarios are baffling and so charged with tension and suspense that we are driven to construct narratives in order to solve the mystery, and make sense of the inscrutable goings-on. The figures intensify this involvement, for they react to us with stares that demand some physical or emotional response. We are thus caught up in the action, and forced to become part of it, as participants, bystanders or, in the case of Surrender and Betrayal, horrified voyeurs.
The freaky incongruities of Surrender (especially the floral curtains which create such a preposterous impression amidst the forbidding brutalist décor) typify the artist’s modus operandi. This study of the naked body of an ageing German Professor lying motionless amidst jumbled possessions on the floor of a stark glass and concrete bungalow immediately imposes itself upon us, and commands our entire attention. The pose, with its strong overtones of martyrdom and sacrifice, achieves tremendous expressive resonance because of the knowing fashion in which Poynton activates vague reminiscence of old master imagery of Piétas, Lamentations, Entombments, Conversions of Saint Paul and Martyrdoms of Saint Lawrence. Such associations place the nude in contradictory contexts for they evoke both agony and ecstasy, immolation and transcendence. The exegetical alternatives are thus multiplied.
The nude is, by definition, virtually devoid of indices of class and social position, and we wonder whether the man, with his dirty nails and scruffy hair, is meant to be a tramp, an intruder, or the owner of the house. Is he in the thrall of some mystic epiphany, or is he dead, or dying, and, if the latter, is this due to suicide or natural causes? We scan the evidence, and note that everything about the mise-en-scene suggests extremity. The house has been ransacked, and the two wedding rings, photographs, writings and documents beside the man may indicate that he has undertaken some kind of final reckoning. However, certainty eludes us. Although the artist has planted copious clues, none impose a definitive solution, and the painting remains open-ended.
Although Poynton’s art is intensely dramatic, it is never stagy, and the unease that assails us as we contemplate Surrender is orchestrated in an elusive, almost subliminal manner. In this, as in her every other painting, Poynton exploits almost imperceptible disparities of scale, perspective, viewpoint, light and architecture to create disjunctions and convey the feeling that all is not well. Cast shadows clearly imply that the nude is illuminated by a light emanating from somewhere close to the floor behind him. This area is clearly visible, yet no light source appears there. The body, and the isometric box formed by the room, appear to be viewed from head-on, yet the left wall is angled in a manner totally incompatible with this viewpoint. To left and to right, the panels depict window spaces parallel with the picture plane. These are seen close up from an angle of vision utterly incongruent with our view of the nude who should be located much further back in space if any pictorial logic is to obtain.
The grandly spectacular For Ever and Ever is set inside Cape Town’s Old Mutual building, but the interior is handled with emotive poetic licence. Poynton redecorates the old banking hall in blaring cerise and raucous lime-green, a colour scheme that makes us wince just as effectively as chalk screeching on a blackboard. Copious jet-black voids punctuate the space, and fill it with chilling intimations of the void. These the cast assiduously ignore by taking flight into an artificial paradise.
The Old Mutual building was completed shortly before the Nationalists took power, and it served as headquarters for a corporate giant which supported the new regime, and exploited architecture to envelop itself in the same aura of stability, solidity and permanence as the Nationalists sought to project around their rule. This monolith, the exterior of which is encircled by a propagandist frieze depicting the grateful black subject races, epitomises this vanished ethos of racial supremacy, and memorialises a political order which, like the Nazi Reich, was intended to last for 1 000 years.
Poynton’s painting records the profanation of this holy of holies, which was converted into apartments and sold off to the public a year or so ago. The orgiastic multi-racial party taking place in For Ever and Ever commemorates this conversion, and portrays the beneficiaries of the new dispensation celebrating their triumph over the old ideology and the repressive Calvinist morality it upheld.
For Ever and Ever also hints at the decline of Western culture. The classical architecture, redolent of libraries, opera houses and other seats of art and learning, has been hijacked by youth, and the old ideals – intellectual accomplishment and meaningful engagement – supplanted by a global disco-culture of brands, image, fashion and escapist gratification. However, music, liquor and drugs fail to produce bliss: all appear immured in solitude; physical and psychological communion is scant, and a joyless and gruelling freneticism prevails.
The painting is saturated in sadness for it addresses the universal theme of man’s frustrated yearning for an ever and ever of love, felicity, fulfilment and meaning. Although some party-goers are on a high, the black youth vending photographs will soon dispel their rapture, for he is the ghost at the banquet, the inevitable reminder of judgement, mortality and the precariousness of our social harmony. By flashing images of soldiers who may have died in order to provide the revellers with the freedoms they enjoy, he becomes the voice of conscience.
Betrayal takes place on a dream-like tropical island which distils the same sense of inscrutable mystery and infinite space as the seascapes of Caspar David Friedrich. The setting may be idyllic, but the action is nightmarish. Here a crowd, which includes yet another male nude, support and press in upon a naked, possibly dead, female, and react, in the main, with callous indifference or ghoulish delight. Although the nude woman is in no sense a portrait, Poynton admits that she identifies with this figure, and exploits her to express her fears of abandonment, persecution and defilement. The agent of the betrayal, the man seated at the table, portrays the same model as Poynton used in Surrender. In reality, this man is a close and admired friend so the painting is obviously an extremely intimate statement.
Technically Betrayal is an indisputable tour de force, and the outstretched body of the woman, and craning pose of the man are handled with Poynton’s usual effortless mastery of anatomy and steep foreshortening. The seemingly truncated head, arm and hand of the female body, which artfully disappear behind her back or are concealed by other figures, create gruesome suggestions of lynching and dismemberment that confirm the woman’s status as sacrificial victim. Pointing fingers introduce ghoulish overtones of Saint Thomas prodding Christ’s wounds. The artist inscribes the horror and incomprehension human cruelty inspires in her into the very architecture of the painting, for the two nudes form an inverted question mark.
Despite Christological overtones Betrayal, like Poynton’s fourth work, Safety and Security, remains a riddle. However, such riddles prove haunting and obsessive, and the sheer power of the artist’s imagination propels the viewer onto the threshold of revelation. Like the black paintings and Caprichos of Goya, Poynton’s visionary fantasies seem authentic embodiments of the mysteries and enigmas implicit in the human condition.
Lloyd Pollak, Artthrob, 2006