THE ART OF DENIAL
An examination of DEBORAH POYNTON’S exhibition EVERYTHING MATTERS, 2010 KZNSA By Janet Solomon
I recently assisted with the Deborah Poynton Everything Matters show here at the KZNSA in March and I had the pleasure of interviewing the artist regards her philosophies and processes. As a painter Poynton deliberates on the meaning and purpose of painting and that this is key to understanding of her choice of realism, her formal treatment of spatiality and figures, plus the monumentality of her canvases. The work selected for the “Everything Matters “ exhibition delivers a multitude of investigative avenues and a richness for close reading.
While I was researching other interviews and reviews I was struck by the overall use of binaries to describe the process or affect of Poynton’s work: microscopic detail and bill-board gigantism1 ; tradition and rupture; beauty and dark flipside of the seen 2; verisimilitude and absence 3;intimacy and fear4; seduction and deception; narrative and deceptive ploy5; desire and loss; and I would probably add : labour and worth.
When I asked her why it is that her work is capable of holding these polemics she replied:
Because for a start I am not dictating anything. So there’s no limit, and so life contains these polemics. So it’s just simple really. [she laughed]. Life contains these. So the more detail and the more I place onto the canvas, the more I fill it, the less there is to interpret in it. So it’s an absolute dichotomy.6
This is where things get interesting, because Poynton is an artist who works realistically, depicting everything down to the scars and last hair. These are rendered with an evenness and fastidiousness of precision, the images reproduced with an almost mechanical hand. She uses brushes no wider than 6mm on larger than life-size figurative renditions. Her canvases are filled to the point where she must insert windows for a psychological reprieve. This is classically referred to as the genre of horror vacui, literally: fear of empty spaces filling of the entire surface of an artwork with detail. It is an avoidance of emptiness. So why does she believe that there’s less to interpret in it?
There is no space for interpretation, everything is being shown to you, and the more I reveal, the less narrative, the less story there is behind it. So any meaning you try to apply to it seems to slip off. I am constantly avoiding narrative. I’m really afraid of dictating it. I don’t think words work. It can be interpreted as much as life can be, which isn’t very much, for most of us7
Surely, the more signs and signifiers one places into an image the more there is to interpret from it? We cannot assume that the meaning of an artwork is identical to the artist’s intention nor even to our understanding of it as a contemporary audience. And we should not be bound by what the artist said, or thought she was saying, but cede authority to the viewer.
1 Pollack, Lloyd; Deborah Poynton at Michael Stevenson, on: www.artthrob.co.za, February 2006 2 Pollack, Lloyd; Deborah Poynton at Michael Stevenson, on: www.artthrob.co.za, February 2006
3 Goldblatt, David ;Deborah Poynton observed , monograph co-published by SCAD and Michael Stevenson,2009 4 Franzidis, Eva ;Deborah Poynton at Michael Stevenson Gallery, on: www.artthrob.co.za, Oct. 2004
5 Franzidis, Eva Deborah Poynton at Michael Stevenson Gallery, on: www.artthrob.co.za, Oct. 2004
6 Interview with Janet Solomon, 24 March 2010
7 Artist’s talk in KZNSA Gallery , Everything Matters Exhibition, 24 March 2010
Looking at the work, it naturally seems to fall into a series of parameters that seem more fruitfully analysed by looking at allegories, symbolism and psychoanalysis, yet Poynton emphatically denies that any of these have anything to do with it. She refuses to hand viewers an unequivocal meaning believing that the “very nature of this kind of realism is that you cannot enter it. You know. It’s eternally unavailable. “8
I agree that there is a sense of absence but disagree that it stems from a lack of narrative or meaning. Here is my experience and close reading of the exhibition.
Let’s look at the work:
To Be Alone (2009) a triptych comprising three panels; Beloved (2008) ; Arcadia (2010)a diptych comprising two panels at this stage and Everything Matters (2008/2009) another diptych .When one looks at this selection one is struck by the degree to which this show is about companion pieces, twins, gemini, opposites, duality; or one could read it as realities in synthesis.
The first piece one saw upon entry of the gallery was To Be Alone. Poynton says: “We control others to keep them close, and find ourselves alone” 9 This is Poynton at her most typical – a constructed interior filled with posed people and the clutter of the stuff of interiors. This is not a known interior – it is a push-me-pull-you of a space to accommodate 2 couples. If you look carefully – you’ll find this is not single point perspective, with conforming Euclidean spatiality. This is a stacked, inharmogenous , complex spatiality. This becomes not a description of a pre- existing world but the creation of another, a simulcral world in which the unconscious colonizes reality. It re- presents our world and the modality of knowing relates to the unconscious. The binding agent in all of this is not only the glue of drapery but the evenness of grey tonality and flat lighting ,plus the passivity of the figures.
Poynton begs us to read the scene symbolically: the focal point, excuse the pun, must surely be the penis. Its inflamed state plus the abandoned hair piece, the peeled banana skin, the knife, the empty cup all talk of a post coital moment. However if one is to assess the reaction of the Poynton figure one immediately reads the title as raising existential questions of aloneness and lack of fulfilment and we the viewers, are forced into a position of physical and emotional voyeurism, complicit to this thwarted intimacy.
The tray is classically a Vanitas image. Ecclesiastes 1:2 from the Bible is often quoted in conjunction with this term. My preferred translation (New International Version) reads Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.The discarded ribbon knotted in a circle is a symbol of immortality. Like a crown or garland, it holds the concept of absolute fulfilment much like a wedding ring.
When Poynton swears there’s never intentional allegory in her work, one has to wonder whether she is being disingenuous. It is inevitable that our reading of these specific genres employed , namely horror vacui, vanitas , momento mori, and trompe l’oiel, become mediated by previous historical narratives and must therefore already be loaded with meaning . They are not sterile and arbitrarily chosen. They resist disquotation because they act against the arbitrary. Poynton says
I would never choose an item because it has meaning in a painting. I can only grab at things and include them and see if it feels right and not right.10
8 Interview with Janet Solomon, 24 March 2010
9 Artist’s talk in ACA Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta. February 2009
10 Stevenson ,Michael ; Deborah Poynton in conversation with Michael Stevenson; in: ‘Everything Matters’, monograph co- published by SCAD and Michael Stevenson,2009,p19
So for her the process of choice is intuitive, reflecting as they do her fascination with the Northern Renaissance art. Another speculative source is her church going and religious upbringing.
Memento mori translates from Latin as “Remember you must die”. Its purpose as a genre was to remind people of their own mortality and to caution against the transgression of the rules of their religion. The left hand image shows a disengaged, contemplative Goldblatt, who matches the Poynton figure, but possibly with regret. Poynton calls the figure a ‘broken giant’. On the cabinet the precarious glass is half full. Another classic memento mori is the watch – is time running out? Books are half finished and life’s work is not done. The magazine with Santa, how can we not be reminded of the loneliness of Xmas for some?
On the right hand side of this triptych is the image of Ilsa Boswell, a frequent model for Poynton. In fact she will feature again in the Beloved image. In both she is depicted as focused on the viewer. She becomes an inclusive element, observing observation of herself, and so mirrors John from the central scene. Conversely though she is coiled and self- protective, hardly controlling, and I would be hard pressed to lay claim to the engaged female gaze by feminist writers. Through the only open aperture one penetrates an enclosed garden, with its’ abundance of phallic frangipani stems.
If the room is a place of private thoughts and individuality and the window holds the possibility of understanding and passing through to the external and beyond, then the mirror, yet another vanitas element, must be symbolic of self contemplation, containing and absorbing images and annihilating distance. This mirror carries the concept of echo, or twins and with the 2 backs reflected in it repeats the idea of the mirrored psychodynamic of the members of each couple.
Am I really being too literal, too modernist, too last century when I read the proverbial quality of this scene? Must I rather look to the centre of the painting where, in the mirror, is reflected the chair that represents both the position of the painter and the viewer potentially as voyeur, and it is figurally able to represent the absence of a presence? But this pervasive sense of absence is derived from so much in Poynton’s work, mainly I believe because she traps our minds on the surface. She constantly subverts realistic representation by calling attention to its own artifice, to its own perspectival manipulations, its illustrative capacity and thus to the problematic nature of referentiality as such. And isn’t this the pure proverbial, is this not Vanitas?
Let’s move on to the image of the Beloved. The title gives us some clues – Jungian, Kundalini and Gnostic theory would interpret this as the anatomised unconscious in the process of surrender.
Poynton has said that here she is quoting Ingres’s Death of Marat and has commented on the fact that the subject appears to be on a bier, the table on which a corpse in placed. We must also beg the question of a direct reference to Manet’s Olympia but with a far greater degree of passivity, lethargy. Poynton talks of this model’s rage that she has been beloved all her life but with the concomitant cost of a life of not being seen. So should we read it rather as passive aggressivity?
Beyond these references still more portend further menace. Like Sickert’s women from the Jack the Ripper’s Camden Town shown with dark slashes at their throats, she wears the red chocker. Is this just an extension of the idea of the head disconnect from the body, a dispossessed unconscious mind seeking unity; red the base shacra, symbolic of the victim. The image of beheading is extended to the rooster of the lampstand behind her. He could also stand for activity and vigilance, but no light shines on him. And behind it is a reproduced image of Bruegel’s last work called the Magpie of the gallows. The gallows has represented the bestial instinctual deeds motivated by the unconscious. The punished are hung by the neck.
The next diptych, has the title Arcadia. This painting moves us beyond the confines of the interior but instead of offering us an idyllic Arcadian vision of unspoiled wilderness, virtuous and uncorrupted by civilization it depicts an abandoned car in a peri-urban garden. It has the atmosphere of a missing persons’ crime-scene. A voluntary exit from reality has had some form of consequence. This sense of vacancy creates dialectic between abundance and
absence, between the longing for plenitude and the experience of emptiness. Ambiguity once again sits below the surface – is this car leaving or arriving/ coming or going, the 2 halves of human existence.
Poynton plays with the Baroque illusionist tool: tromp l’oeil by creating a folly, the proverbial “transparent window” through which to view the scene. This idiom is known 11 to question the status of representation and explore the limits and credibility of perception. The idiom calls attention to artistry, however unlike her predecessors Poynton has not exploited the descriptive possibilities of oil paint. Her highlights are simply smudged to downplay them. The technique of tromp l’oeil for Poynton stops with illusionism and talk of the proverbial. This is ,I believe, for Poynton a parody of the mimetic assiduousness of Baroque illusionism while at the same time adopting the paradox upon which their effect depends: the disjunction between the limited space of artistic representation on the one hand, and the illusion of infinite expansion on the other.
To title this piece Arcadia draws an obvious direct reference to Et in Arcadia ego, the Latin phrase that most famously appears as the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin. Et in Arcadia ego is usually interpreted to mean “I am even in Arcadia” spoken by personified Death and a memento mori, yet another cautionary reminder of the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
This brings us to the first real companion piece – Everything Matters.This is an exploration of a complex sibling bond. This is Poynton with her half brother whom she first met in2001. It may be important to mention previously published facts12 of Poynton’s adoption and loss of both adoptive parents whilst she was still young. Poynton is someone for whom deracination and questions of belonging are the fabric of life. Being seen, being good enough, an
avoidance of emptiness, issues of intimacy and control underpin her work.
Again the gemini duality and opposition of forces shows itself in the binaries expressed in this diptych: sister and brother; warm tones and cool tones; naked and clothed; colour and black and white; passivity and sprung tension. Even the glass in both LH and RH doors is divided into 2. The door in the image of the engaged, naked ,perched Poynton is closed and through the matt glass one gets a sense that there is yet another door. The post box has been sealed from the outside, the interior side bears the signs of what was once a functional aperture, but the receptacle has been removed. The door is a feminine symbol, giving access to the outside, the antithesis of the wall. Behind the figure is a barrier half wall, creating further delay in reaching the outside/inside. It is a resisting and limiting obstruction. A full vase continues feminine symbolism along with notions of acceptance and fertility. Lilies, Mary’s flower, talk of transcience and the ultimate feminine sacrifice.
Both figures are cut off at the knees. Her brother is depicted talking, with a wary ‘flight or fight ‘ aspect in his taut fist curls. This is one of the most barren of her works, broken by the depiction of a fig tree bonsai, restricted in growth and reflecting Poynton the photographer where its roots should be.
Does this call into question Poynton’s stance on meaning when she offers us such riddles for decoding, that read like a Dan Brown novel? Allegorical art is paraphrasable, it wants definition.
I’d like to quote Poynton from an interview with Michael Stevenson:
11 Grootenboer, Hanneke , The rhetoric of perspective: realism and illusionism in seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting ,Univ of Chicago press, 2005
12 Pollack ,Lloyd ;The state of the nation in brushstrokes, in: ‘This Day’, p.9, 09 Aug 2004
We perceive everything through a filter, a symbolic filter. I avoid symbolism like the plague. I want to get to what Jacques Lacan called the ‘real’. I think it is frightening in a way because, if drained of symbolism, everything falls into its own place and lack of meaning. Everything matters or nothing matters. 13
And again she says of the possible symbolic elements of her work:
It is anti-meaning. In a way I can only express living though anti-meaning. That the meaning that arises through symbolism is an anti-meaning, it is a meaning that is perhaps convenient or a meaning that helps us structure our world, but is it what the world really is. I am afraid of meaning.14
Are we to ask then whether these images are abstracts? What are these contrivances? Are they coincidences? So should we say that these works have nothing to do with subjectivity per se? Is Poynton’s prevarication simply a refusal to be pinned down, a resistance to pigeonholing, a resistance to change? What’s the label being avoided, and why does it intimidate? This is Poynton communicating, denying co-operation in talking about what we want her to talk about – meaning. This resistance, this thwarting us, holds the same function as her work. Understanding it takes us into the heart of that of which it is an interpretation. Instead we may need to say that the works seek to reveal the totality of their artifice and a complete separation from any external reality they seem to reflect, but more importantly that they are intensely absorbed by the phenomenon of the creating self.
13 Stevenson ,Michael ; Deborah Poynton in conversation with Michael Stevenson; in: ‘Everything Matters’, monograph co- published by SCAD and Michael Stevenson,2009,p19
14 Stevenson ,Michael ; Deborah Poynton in conversation with Michael Stevenson; in: ‘Everything Matters’, monograph co- published by SCAD and Michael Stevenson,2009,p19