With almost cruel evidence of age and unfulfilled desires, the well known Cape artist Deborah Poynton punches the Johannesburg art lover full in the stomach, with an honest solo exhibition here. She shows her disturbing portraits of physical and emotional decay. The decay that is caused by a lack of physical contact sits in accentuated wrinkles and dreary eyes of almost life-size figures in her paintings. This display of emotional distress and grievances under the title THE GRIP OF CIRCUMSTANCE is presented in conjunction with Michael Stevenson Contemporary in Cape Town.
In four paintings, with naked figures in a super-realistic nature, the artist battles with her hang ups, curses the fear of intimacy that so many of us suffer from. This is the climax in the grip of circumstance – our own history – that we carry with us. The chisel that gives shape to identity.
Neither this therapeutic approach nor the idea that personal circumstance is the cause of a person’s identity is nothing new when it comes to art. But seen through the individual glasses of a certain artist, still grips self examination and the process of self discovery.
Because of the autobiographical nature of the work (the artist herself poses in her own paintings the artist refers to her own personal experiences) it is important to know that the artist is a thirty-seven year old divorced mother. The disturbance and rage and frustration that is a direct link of these circumstances (history) defines theme and mood. Also in works like Portrait of Guy where a good friend, the photographer Guy Tillim is portrayed as himself, and in Passage where Tillim only models with an elderly woman but represents something else than himself.
The works move dangerously close to the literal interpretation because of the open hearted autobiographical and personal information. This results in an almost shock surprise experience when you discover that the model for the masturbation-scene is Poynton herself. This fact plays an important role in the meaning and effectiveness of the works. By means of the artist identifying herself gives strength to her set target: resistance against society’s (read: social, religious taboos with regards to the naked body, sensuality and eroticism) indoctrination. The figures in Poynton’s paintings are in a more and lesser way victims of the cause of this distress – everyone except the young open faced child, innocent who meets the onlooker’s gaze directly.
Poynton uses the invisible lines that is sketched by means of the figures in her paintings eyes to established close compositions as well as to focus attention on the eyes. Also to increase drama where the faces of her models is turned away from the viewer. With turned away eyes other body parts are accentuated, like the limp sex of the aged man in History, and the active hand of the woman that masturbates in Ice Age. (Not to worry, here are no traces of pornography. The lack of erotic pleasure is far to obvious. It’s more about unfulfilled desires and distress rather than sensual arousal)
The fascination of the works lies not only in the way emotion is reflected through face and posture as well as detail of personal appearances but also through the contrast that the artist accomplish between technique and content. In other words she plays with the paradox between what you would expect from a super realistic style (accent on personal appearance and illusion of reality) as well as what you as the viewer experience (accent is placed on repressed emotions).
Look at Portrait of Guy as an example. His whole life is shown in photo-realistic painted objects bunched together on a combination living room bedroom side table: earphones, CD and cigarette. Seemingly a mere document of a bachelor’s home. Thereafter how the image is composed becomes evident: The compositional elements that the man is formed from seems closed – bent arms and folded hands forms two triangles with their broadest sides connected horizontally. Fixed and not free. The mood is emphasized by the man’s head leaning forward and the eyes staring somewhat downwards above a stressed mouth but then the very fine etched lines of the unlined curtain becomes evident.
The intensified realistic style that does not accommodate aesthetics or emotional bluntness pushes the viewer away and pulls them back. It forces you to consider the concept behind the visual information rather than being swept away by the technical excellence that creates an illusion of reality.
In super realistic style of a Chuck Close, Dwayne Hanson and John de Andrea, Poynton also shows every wrinkle and imperfection but her goal is at the opposite side of the scale. Where super realism with American artists in the 1960s and 1970s became symbols of shallow appearances of middle-class life, in similar style Poynton focuses on emotional grievances. The figures are metaphors of self caused loneliness shown in circumstances like impotence, sexual frustration and unfulfilled desires. It’s self inflicted to the point where the collective morality of the individual is responsible for chains to be locked by means of indoctrination.
Bettie Lambrecht – Beeld 24 May 2007.
Translated by Lucia Boer and Elizabeth Buys