2009 “Deborah Poynton Observed”: catalogue essay by David Goldblatt

Deborah’s Poynton’s paintings of people are based entirely, as far as I know, on photographs that she has taken herself of subjects in whom she has become interested. The photographs that she takes go far beyond being, simply, reference material. They are made very deliberately yet intuitively to bring together her sense of the person before her, and the image she is already forming in her mind’s eye of the painting to come. As that sense and that image take form she quite rapidly builds a series of photographs of head, face, body and parts, seen from the perspective that she has in mind. She works quickly, quietly, methodically. With seemingly little direction of the subject she contrives to bring about a state of being in the subject that seems to accord with the potential that she initially discerned. She photographs with intensity and sometimes conveys a rising excitement as her sense of the person and of the ‘painted possibilities’ begin to coalesce in what she sees as she takes the photographs. That coalescence is of the essence of her work, for ultimately, the painting will be, not so much a transposition into paint of the photographs, as a transposition into paint of what she has most assiduously sought in taking the photographs: something of the very spirit of her subject.

By spirit I mean that amalgam of qualities, which, though largely indefinable and quite unscientific, we recognize in each other as our personal essence. I believe that ‘it’ or a sense of ‘it’ can be held and discerned in photographs. Some portrait photographs have it, most don’t. Some photographers are sometimes able to capture it, most aren’t.  It is an ability that has little to do with professional skills and practice; it might or might not have to do with compassion; it has much to do with an acute awareness of the other as another sentient being. Poynton has this ability in an exceptional degree.

In ‘putting’ her photographed subjects into paint two seemingly contradictory processes unfold. In the one, the photographed subject is painted into a context, a scene, a tableau that often has little and even nothing to do with the scene in which the photographs took place. There is a radical transposition into landscapes of places and objects, of situations with other people who have been similarly photographed, that comes almost entirely from her imagination. In the other seemingly contradictory process, what becomes evident as the painting proceeds, is a translation into paint not only of the form but of the spirit of the subject as it was held in the photographs. There is sometimes a slight shift in perspective, sometimes in the quality of the light in which the two images, the photographic and the painted, are rendered, but essentially, no, more than that, quintessentially, the form and the spirit of the person as revealed in the photographs are faithfully painted. If Poynton makes free with the context into which she puts her subjects, I dare to say that she is passionately faithful to the images of them embedded in the photographs she has made. She takes no liberties. For her, images in photographs are not, as I think they are for most painters, points of departure, they are the thing itself, one of two vital parts that make up the core of her work. The other part is, of course, the imagined, the worlds she creates in her paintings.

Those worlds depict situations of life that have the quality of being ‘true to life’ and yet of being abstracted from it. This is not a painterly abstraction, a blurring of reality. On the contrary, there is remarkable care and accuracy of depiction in all the parts and details of her ‘worlds’. It is difficult to pin down the cause and even the quality of this abstraction and yet it is at the heart of her work. I think it is an emotional quality having to do with removal and absence which, for lack of a better word, I call sadness. It is the sadness of lives truly seen, in all the pain and joy of recognition and brought to the canvas with remarkable verisimilitude and intimacy, and yet remote, unreachable. It is as though Poynton stretches out, passionately and with consummate care to touch and enter those lives, but she, like we, the viewers, is not released. I think it is partly the tension between what she can do and what she cannot do that gives her paintings such power.

She has claimed to me that she does not paint her life. I don’t believe her.