BOTH followers and detractors of Deborah Poynton’s paintings are familiar with her dense, finely worked surfaces and complex compositions. The artist presents as a painter in total control of her technique and subject matter.
Her paintings appear seamlessly stitched, making it understandable that they are so often are mistakenly read as photo realism. In reality they are invariably constructed from different places to create a totally believable, yet non- existent reality. For Poynton, painting “is an attempt to form a bridge between myself and the world, to carve out a little space and spread out my blanket.”
A year ago Poynton’s paintings take a sudden, seemingly out of character shift. Inserted into the 15 tightly worked paintings which made up the exhibition Scenes of a Romantic Nature, were five apparently very different paintings, appropriately titled Propositions. In them, density bled away to the merest hint of form.
Vegetation and landscape were implied by a shorthand suggestive of traditional Asian calligraphy. A reflection her interest the Japanese Ukiyo-e (floating world) wood block prints from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Space or emptiness was introduced into the mix – lots of it.
The open areas of white canvas both held the marks and dominated the paintings. Poynton is increasingly “fascinated by the emptiness behind everything “acknowledging that “as you put one mark on the white of the canvas it becomes a space.”
Although the marks are potent with vibrancy, we would be quite wrong to believe that these were expressionistic doodlings from a place of feeling.
The executed control obvious in earlier work continues. Each segue of the brush is as considered and definitive as the arrow from the Zen archer’s bow to be discarded if not true. “I find I have to be in exactly the right frame of mind…” she says.
As a result quite a few canvases for the new show fell short of the target and were eliminated.
In Propositions, Poynton-like some “arse–about- face” creator god working backwards, showed us a subatomic mesh from a quantum age that underlies form rather than the finished product.
For Poynton says “I unpaint”; meaning that the loose underpaintings that she begins with are unpainted by the meticulous detail that follows.
In Propositions as in Picnic, we get to see what we may consider the undercoat which is the real painting for her.
For Poynton “it was almost like archaeology to excavate back to the underpaintings.“
This is particularly apparent in the densely under painted Field Day panels in Picnic.
And so what was introduced in Propositions comes fully into its own in Picnic, Poynton’s 8th solo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery.
The word picnic comes from the French word pique-nique.
It is a mid-18th century concept where guests contributed to the food of a social event often outside in pleasant, natural surroundings.
According to historians, after the French revolution picnicking in royal parks previously denied them became popular with the public. It’s also a term that is used to indicate something that is easy.
Picnic has a different take.
There might be the occasional fragment of a checked picnic blanket, but there’s no food involved and the only humans inserted into natural settings are limited to single male nudes and clothed adolescent boys.
Picnic here is closely associated with territory.
She explained in her walkabout that she “liked the idea of a picnic as a little piece of territory, marked out by a blanket, which helps domesticate nature for us.”
Understandably, territory, in a post -colonial, post -apartheid South African context, generates strong responses. But while it’s not the artist’s intention to comment on the political (in fact her work could be read as out of step with it) nevertheless, on a fundamental human level, her paintings express a universal human need and longing for a safe spot under the sun.
Whether you mark out territory with an impermanent picnic blanket or permanently with land-surveying stakes, colonise the airwaves with loud music, dominate the streets with terrifying driving, or go to war for it, territory and human beings are inextricably bound.
One could go so far as to say humans are defined by territory. Poynton parallels the role of picnic spot with the role of paintings. Both are involved in translating formlessness into something secure and manageable for human beings.
But the ethos of Picnic is not limited to the claiming of territory. Its paintings tap into the paradox of the human condition, in this instance projected onto territory.
For as Poynton points out, inherent in the need for “a safe space” or “our longing for containment” is it’s opposite “our longing for freedom”.
After Poynton’s previous exhibition Scenes of a Romantic Nature which was “full of incredibly detailed work” she “wanted to try something else“, feeling that she’d “pushed that particular approach as far as it could go”.
Even though the underpainting has been made visible Poynton, is not interested in the materiality of the paint or canvas. But she is interested in illusion – even one loosely suggested with slashes and streaks of paint as in the series By the Sea.
One of the starting points for Picnic was an exhibition of Edenic paradises (in the evocative sense rather than the literal one) by Pierre Bonnard which she saw in Paris and was “blown away by”.
This exhibition also reflects Poynton’s impetus for combining different kinds of painting; from the minimal marks of By the Sea 4, the dense underpainting of Field or the combo of densely worked areas and marks of Fete Gallant and Luncheon on the Grass.
Her reference to historical paintings is equally varied, from Manet to the 19th century Japanese painter Nakabayashi Chikudo.
The exhibitions painting may be themed around picnic but illusion is Poynton’s real subject matter.
The aesthetic trumps and undermines meaning and any perceived “symbolism is just a red herring”.
Yet for all these clever contrivances and constructs and engaging with complex paradoxes, there is an uncomplicated, direct embrace by Poynton of the unadulterated pleasure associated with painting.
For an in depth guide to her paintings go the Stevenson gallery website and read the transcript of the artist’s talk.