2016 “Picnic” review, Lloyd Pollak

Bracketing Realism and Abstraction: Deborah Poynton’s ‘Picnic’

By Lloyd Pollak

September 22, 2016

‘Picnic’ is Deborah Poynton’s eighth solo at STEVENSON, and over fourteen years, visitors have formed a clear picture of her corpus only to have their expectations confounded here. ‘Picnic’ marks a radical and courageous break with her old familiar realist style. Any major breakthrough creates a disorientating jolt: the viewer must completely reassess the artist’s oeuvre and measure the gains realized by such a hectic volte-face.   

The artist is invariably categorized as a ‘hyperrealist’, and viewing her previous work from afar it would appear valid inasmuch as every inch seems executed with a meticulous, microscopic exactitude. However when scrutinized from close by, detail falls out of focus, dissolving into blobby pigmented blotches, and the realism breaks down in a way it never does in the work of Chuck Close and Richard Estes which always retains its impeccable mirror-like precision. Poynton deliberately sabotaged her wondrous illusionism to reveal its deceit. Beside the nominal subjects invoked in her titles, Poynton always addressed the nature of painting, questioned its conventions and underlined their arbitrariness. In ‘Picnic’ this self-reflexive process dominates. The picnic theme coexists with an interrogation of our understanding of nature, our constructions of what a picnic is meant to be, and our means of representing it.

Deborah Poyton, Scroll: Writing the Forest 2, 2016. Diptych. Oil on canvas

Lost and Found 2, the first work to greet one’s eyes as one enters the gallery, is largely couched in Poynton’s former idiom, so that the rasping novelty is toned down, allowing a comforting lull before we are plunged into Poynton’s totally refurbished universe.

Lost and Found 2 depicts an open-sided gazebo, which provides shade and a vantage point from which we can safely enjoy the landscape we imagine rolling out beyond the borders of the canvas. Poynton never presents raw nature, it is always tamed, processed and packaged for our consumption. Here the earth is laid out as a pleasure garden and architecture mark’s man’s supremacy over the terrain, offering guarantees for our wellbeing.  

The painting is empty of humans and a blanket supplies the only evidence of picnicking. This recurring motif facilitates spectatorship as does the natural rock seat in Field Day and the wire chair in Lost and Found 1. The blanket acts a bridge between the viewer and the painting, luring us into the picture, and filling the gallery with the unseen cast who have who momentarily stepped out of frame to explore the unseen beyond. Their proximity imparts an air of expectation to the images where the seating and blankets usually remain unoccupied, awaiting their occupants imminent return.  

The artist describes the gazebo’s rotting wood, grain, nodules and the moss eroding its roof with such bravura skill, we can almost smell the decaying timber, dampened mulch and pervasive moisture. The reek of decay implies a subtext addressing time, death and generation. The tumbledown structure will collapse, the flowers perish. Throughout the verdure is painted with a dewy Spring-like freshness in juicy greens, though often flower and leaf resemble the little posies one might lay on a grave or present in courtship.

Lost and Found 2 serves as a prelude to the revolutionary innovations of Luncheon on the Grass. The sweeping panoramic expanses of its four panels surge over one wide gallery wall almost covering its entirety. Here Poynton achieves a liberating breadth and freedom by replacing the seething masses of visual data with spareness, bareness and a rapt delectation of the pure physical substance of paint often freed from all descriptive role, and used as an instrument of lyrical celebration, grace and sensuality.   

Formerly her work was so congested the eye held no purchase upon it. Here our attention is focussed by the broken zigzagging line of the uprooted trees and snapped-off branches which accommodate the artists two sons, and rhyme with the verticals, horizontals and diagonals their bodies and limbs. The contrasting kinetic accents conjured up by the many divaricating branches interrupt, but never arrest, the steady progress of the line picking a dogged path across the canvas, bisecting the summit and base of the panels at intervals, and holding every element firmly in its appointed place. The composition is the absolute backbone of the painting forcing it to cohere although all else is loose, unanchored and free-floating. Poynton provides no terra firma to support the forms which drift against airy, spacious margins of empty white space. There is a refreshing new lightness, airiness and buoyancy in which every element is granted its own expansive pocket of space.      

Deborah Poynton Luncheon on the Grass, 2016. Quadriptych. Oil on canvas

The halcyon entrancement of the setting counterpoints the picnicker’s melancholy.  Never do they lose themselves in the moment or actively enjoy nature. The two boys seated back to back are isolated far from each other. There is no camaraderie, and the older boy is sunk in deep sobering reverie as – a few sprigs of fresh blossom and leaf apart – this is a world of spoilage and decomposition, of uprooted trunks and broken branches. If the trees hark back to the tree of life, it is invariably smashed.

In Painting Space 1 and Arbour the landscape explodes, and branches and leaves are blasted apart. In these, and the three Undergrowth paintings, Poynton’s thick stripes of black correspond to gestures of surrender and despair crossing out the painting and everything within it.   

Deborah Poyton, Lost and Found 1, 2016. Oil on canvas, 230 x 190cm

Bracketing realism and abstraction within the same painting, underscores its artifice, but miraculously ‘this makes the abstract more real, and the real more abstract’ to quote Poynton. We automatically read the vertical stripes to right as tree trunks, and measuring devices, staking out the shallow depth of the picture space. The presence of all the coils and whorls of pure pigment near the uprooted trunk, sensitize us to the abstract allure of the gritty abrasive textures of soil, roots, timber and crevices at the base of the uprooted trunk.

By the Sea 3 is a pure lyrical abstraction in which the circular motion of the marks nevertheless suggest the shove and heave of the tides and the roll of the breakers as they gather momentum, take shape and break. Her marks emote a questing urgency as if they, like the artist, were searching for the new. Her touch is light and darting and often she daubs so little grey or black pigment on the canvas that it assumes a pale, wispy and immaterial quality as it emerges out of the white only to disappear into it again like a smoke ring dissolving in the air.  

Scroll: Writing the Forest 2 abstracts oriental scroll paintings of soaring peaks, gorges and tumbling cascades. The lively fluid calligraphy suggests watery currents eddying over pebbles in a stream, wind sweeping over crops, pouring clouds, birds taking flight or an amalgam of all these.   

Such spontaneous, off-the-cuff improvisations always retain a vestigial link to nature, and seemingly record the coming into being of the painting whose completion is forever deferred so that it suggests some elemental act of creation like God separating light from darkness. Often the kiss of brush on canvas is adoring, tender and reverent expressing the passion and awe the shimmering beauty of the universe inspires in the artist, her regret that her art only approximates to it, and that time will loosen her grip over the world, her own life and that of her sons.