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DEBORAH POYNTON PICTURES

Texts by the artist


I would like to start by telling you something about my life, and how it might relate to my work.

I lived in many different places as I was growing up. This gave me an awareness of difference, the understanding that security cannot be found in the outside world. I spent the first nine years of my life in a lush tropical paradise, running barefoot and climbing trees on the eastern coast of South Africa, near Durban, in a place called the Valley of a Thousand Hills. My parents founded and ran an anti-apartheid conference centre, and it was a hard time, with police surveillance and friends being banned from the country. In all this unease, my world was full of magic and secret places, wild thunderstorms, snakes, and long, hot days.

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My parents both died when I was a child, and I ended up living all over the place. A posh English boarding school full of repression. An international boarding school in Swaziland, with pupils from 140 different countries. A private high school in Washington DC, where a girl in my class got a Porsche on her 16th birthday, and I created a one-person class for credit called ‘Independent Art’. By the time I finished high school I felt compelled to be an artist, without knowing at all why, or what it would mean for my life. I studied at the Rhode Island School of Design for two years, until my longing for a home drove me back to South Africa, where I started painting.

I knew nothing about the art world or making a career. I would do this whether it made money or not, whether people liked it or not. I didn’t decide, “Oh, I think I’ll be a realist painter”, rather than make installations or animation. It’s just all I know how to do. I put things together, clumsily. I used to allow a surreal element into my work – the seduction of realism is that you can paint anything. But for me, now, even though the scenes are totally constructed, there must be something believable about them. Real life is disturbing enough. Like a good Calvinist, I seem to arrive at my images by rejecting temptations. Throughout my childhood I always turned to drawing for comfort, to construct a reality, a place in which I had control, a place I could create to suit myself. I wanted to capture things. My mother had a big old book on Leonardo da Vinci, and I used to copy from that. I drew his Roman warrior seen from the side, and then my version, seen from the front and the back ... As an older child I drew very detailed scenes full of animals, plants, or houses with many rooms. It was an attempt to return to the garden of my early childhood, a place of imagination but also of containment. Every artist is an artist for his or her own personal reasons. I need to paint in order to be okay in the world. And the paintings happen in the way that life happens. Over the years I have learnt that the more I allow things to happen, the more true they feel. If I try to impose meaning, the painting dies, and meaning is lost.

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Realism can be so deceptive. I see my realism as a thin veil, literally a thin painted skin over the nothingness behind everything. We try to defend ourselves from this void. We fill our lives with stuff, talk, distraction. We exert power over others to try to feel less powerless. My paintings are full of stuff but they do not feel particularly secure. I will face you with nakedness to communicate a longing for and a terror of connection. And this is why realism is the only thing I want to do, because it seems so close. It is beautiful, sumptuous, and a complete illusion. It is utterly unavailable. You can’t get in there. It is having and wanting at the same time. This is the only way I know in which to reflect the essence of life, which is to hold things that are incompatible. We long for intimacy, but fear it. We make beauty an impossibility, and cover ourselves up for shame. We confine ourselves to try to feel safe, and find ourselves imprisoned. We control others to keep them close, and find ourselves alone. I think our only chance of redemption, or happiness, is here in this moment now. That is why everything matters and nothing matters. The incompatibility again. We must act as though we have free will, even though we do not. Everything matters in the paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and these are the paintings I turn to, over and over again. The exquisite particularity of the plants, objects, lined faces, distant landscapes seen through openings. The fall of light, the wonderful beauty where every part is necessary to the whole. The artisanship of it. People often ask me about the people in my work. They are all people I know well, because there needs to be a relationship of trust, an understanding that I am not making portraits, but rather using the person for my own ends. What appear to be family scenes are not real families. The couples are not couples. The relationships between me and the people I paint change over time and become richer – that’s why I hardly ever see a person in the street and think, “Wow, I’d like to paint you!” My interest is the complexity of internal human experience. It is not narrative, there is no beginning or end, there is no moral.

You could say everything is incidental. I prefer a state of “negative capability”, as John Keats called it, describing this as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and certainty”. According to him, this allows one to be more receptive to emerging patterns. And this has been my experience in my work. The more I push for a solution, or try to explicate a particular narrative, the less authentic the outcome feels. I don’t plan much. The first step is to photograph someone. I direct them until that moment comes when I recognise an emotional texture, a stillness that contains tension. Then I take the photographs. I place that figure with paint on the white canvas, then decide if I need others, and a space begins to define itself. The painting talks back to me and demands certain things. It is a relationship of trust, a way of trusting myself. Sometimes it feels like a monster that I am servicing, because it takes so many hours, and consumes me. But when I don’t have it I realise how much I need it. Painting is a redemptive necessity for me, a way of transforming my life into something that takes on a life of its own. It’s a membrane between what we think is real and what really is. It is a place without words, a stage, a place of refuge, a mirror, a garden.

Artist’s talk on the occasion of the exhibition Everything Matters, ACA Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta, February 2009

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When I thought about writing this, I kept thinking how I can’t explain the meaning of my paintings – so finally I decided to tell you about that.

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The minute I feel myself defining and judging what I am doing, the image I am making seems to harden into a parody of itself and die. So when you ask me what these paintings mean, or why I painted them, I can’t tell you. I would be guessing, and I like other people’s guesswork about it much more than mine; it’s way more interesting and revealing. It’s a strange double-bind I find myself in, because of course I am limiting the image, crowding the entire surface of the canvas with detail, leaving nothing open to interpretation. It is the opposite of a blank canvas. But that is exactly it. There is literally no space for interpretation, it is all being shown to you, and the more I reveal, the less narrative there is behind it. So any meaning applied to it seems to slip off. Words do not work. It can be interpreted as much as life can be, which doesn’t seem to be very much at all, for me at least.


When I make an image, I do not feel I have any control over what goes into it. I wait and see what happens. If I impose my will on it, it no longer feels authentic or respectful. If I impose my will on the canvas, I am imposing my will on you; I’m lecturing you, trying to force you to see things my way. I don’t know what I am doing. Painting the way I do takes up a lot of time, and that’s probably part of it. It seems ridiculous to say that the very time-consuming labour of it is necessary to me. I guess it makes me feel as if I have a purpose, even though I also know I might just as well not do it. I can’t take any credit for it, because it doesn’t feel like a choice, and all the work serves me as much as I am serving it. It is an attempt to recapture a lost connection to the world. Sometimes I am so aware of how limited I am. It is impossible to be more mature than you are, or better, or more clear-sighted, and each small step is peeling away another layer, and what I would love is absolute conviction, absolute clarity. Impossible to fake. I have just carried on doing what I did as a child. It’s been one long continuous stream of making pictures to feel a sense of connectedness. Painting this way is a wordless exclamation. Each tiny decision is based on whether it feels and looks right or not, but I can’t really define what makes it feel right. It is what it is, and I am not making any great claims for it. Sometimes people get cross with it because they hate that it’s not about anything, and that I just carry on with all this realism. This fiddle-faddle, this knitting. It is as if realism must adhere to a whole lot of rules that no longer apply in other forms of art-making.

Realism is dangerous, because virtuosity is not an end in itself, and it so often can appear that way. It can seem as if the artist is claiming that his or her skill is a form of truth. It can seem terribly uneducated or reactionary. The idea that representing how things look is the same as representing truth has been exploded long ago through revolution. And it is so hard to get beyond revolution as an end in itself. Look at South African politics. Virtuosity can be a trap for those who confuse realism with reality and with real art, whatever that may be. Virtuosity lays itself open to rage, scorn, confusion; it’s more radical than the most radical-seeming, bloodletting performance piece. Representational skill can be a hindrance to authenticity, and I watch in amazement as I trip myself up at every turn succumbing to tricks and the seduction of drama, succumbing to my own ego. Who cares if you can paint something that looks real? It is totally banal. There is no worth in that, except as a kind of sport, an exercise in hand-eye co-ordination. Now painting something that seems to contain reality – that is truly moving. It is something I aspire to, one day. And it can be achieved through any medium and in any way. This is my way to try, the way I learned as a child. I have been reading a book called The Gift by Lewis Hyde. He quotes Rilke, who called the act of creating a “wise blindness” that requires the squandering of the self; not the careful hoarding of egotistical intentions, but a leap into darkness. He talks about creativity as a gift, and mentions gift economies in which a gift is passed along from one tribe to the next, or one individual to the next; not necessarily the same gift though. I see that this is what defines a gift and also any act of creativity: that it keeps being passed along from one person to another. It has nothing to do with pride. The minute it is no longer moving, but rather hoarded up, it dies. It becomes a commodity, and an image dies on the canvas, freezes up.

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Creating is an act of humble faith, and I don’t mean religious faith, though for some people of course it is also that, and has been that. For example, Stanley Spencer said: “Painting is saying ‘ta’ to God.” I think I know what he means: he feels a profound gratitude at being allowed to take part in the fabric of life. I think some of my favourite paintings ever are his simple portraits of gardens in his small village. They seem to contain nothing except themselves. If any work contains this sense of something real, it will communicate it to others, whether they know anything about art or not, because it has nothing to do with art. It has to do with life. To receive it, it’s necessary to remain open and intentionless, to maintain a kind of emptiness of will and follow signs and small visions, all while being prepared to do a work that in itself is worthless, but serves to create the essence out of illusion, out of thin paint and canvas, or words, or notes that fade into silence. The Japanese artist Hokusai, who lived in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, describes the unimportance of the individual piece, the life task of apprehending the world: “From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the form of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is nothing of great note. At the age of seventytwo I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvellous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own.”

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No single painting matters, and when people ask me if it’s hard to let them go out of my studio after all that work, I can honestly say that it isn’t, that the whole reason I am doing them is to let them go out of my studio, from which moment they have a life of their own. I have thrown them into the world, not for anyone in particular, but to be seen, and this is what artists do, we put it out there. It is the act of keeping it moving that matters, throwing it into a stream of communal currency, from which, out of a different place, the next image emerges. We only exist in relation to each other and every thing. And there’s nothing new. It’s the act of making and letting it go that feels good – it feels like being a conduit for life. The paintings have a life of their own and I can look at them like I would look at my own past, as something that has happened, unchangeable and outside of myself.


I have been working on a piece with 11 panels, which will hang all the way around a large room. I am making an Arcadia, a place full of leaves, secret places, darknesses, and if you stand in the middle of the room, it will be as if you are in the middle of a folly, looking out. A folly is a human, ornamental construction with no practical purpose. But beyond it is the indescribable richness of the world, where every tiny leaf contains the order and beauty of the whole. It is like a Garden of Eden, from which we are forever separated, standing on the threshold but unable to enter, although we long to return. But bounded by our fears, we find it impossible. We sublimate this longing into art-making, love, addiction. Hyde mentions a Lithuanian folk tale in which the riches the fairies give mortals turn to paper as soon as they are measured or counted, and also a story where a barrel of inexhaustible ale runs dry when a maid removes the cork and looks inside, to see only cobwebs. So the artist is lost in self-consciousness, he says. If you try to understand too hard, meaning will slip away. It might be best not to pry. The less we understand, the more we see, and objects and people lose their scale of value, and everything in this world has a kind of wordless power. Everything in this world forms a unity. To remain open to the act of creating is to use insignificance to make completeness, where each tiny brushstroke or act, meaningless in itself, serves a vibratory whole.

Artist’s talk on the occasion of the exhibition Everything Matters, KZNSA Gallery, Durban, March 2010

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I would like to talk first about northern European paintings of Arcadia, and 17th-century landscape in general, because I am drawn to the philosophy and practice of that time in terms of my own work. Later on I’ll talk a bit about how I came to construct this particular Arcadia.

The late 16th and early 17th centuries marked the end of the High Renaissance, and in Rome a new sensibility emerged as ancient Roman art was rediscovered, and painters came from northern Europe to learn from the new masters. Initially influenced by Caravaggio’s naturalism, artists like Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin turned to the myths and architecture of antiquity to evoke a seemingly more noble time. The compositions became simpler, less flamboyant, focusing more on expression in the human figure, and the light and entirety of composition in landscape. The new century was still very religious but the church’s waning control of patronage and art-making allowed a space to open up for new kinds of philosophical expression. Landscape became a subject in its own right, no longer merely the background of religious painting. Landscape depicts the world outside the self, and inevitably places us in relation to that world in some way or another. Landscape is essentially metaphysical.

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I saw a wonderful exhibition called Tivoli: Variations on a Landscape in the 18th Century in Paris, just after I had finished painting this series. It consisted of many painters’ responses to the ruined temple of Sibyl which stands on some cliffs above Tivoli, near Rome. The exhibition clearly charted the development of landscape in the 17th and 18th centuries, using just this one subject, one of the most popular subjects of the day. The earliest paintings were purely imagined. The artists probably hadn’t been there, but had made something up from hearsay and other people’s drawings. These paintings are exotic and inaccurate, saying perhaps more about the place the artist came from than the subject, rather like early colonial representations of Africa. They are entirely constructed. Towards the end of the period, along with scientific advancement, there was a move towards literal representations worked up from sketches on site and aspiring towards an accurate depiction of the actual place. But it is the middle period of this evolution that interests me most. A combination of constructed and literal, these paintings demonstrate a particular 17th-century concept called ‘invention’. Artists would study nature, plants, anatomy, the play of light, particular buildings, even geometry and optics. They would then arrange these things in an entirely constructed way. They invented landscapes that were not real, but that felt more profound than a simple depiction of an existing place. Towards the end of his life Lorrain was so masterful at this that he could paint perfect landscapes out of his imagination.

This is what drives me in my own painting. I feel that ‘invention’ of this kind, which is an abstraction of reality long before the modernists dreamed of it, is a way in which we can see the world as if for real. We cannot just grasp reality – it remains outside of ourselves. But ‘invention’ is an internalised reality, a safe place for the imagination. William Hazlitt wrote about Poussin’s paintings in 1824: To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire, – who, by his ‘so potent art,’ can recall time past, transport us to distant places, and join the regions of imagination (a new conquest) to those of reality, – who shows us not only what nature is, but what she has been, and is capable of, – he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and grandeur, is lord of nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master-art! (Quoted by Christopher Allen in French Painting in the Golden Age, 2003)

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Artists such as Poussin and Lorrain, even Brueghel, reflected the philosophy of stoicism in their work. Once again taken from antiquity, Hellenic Greece in this case, the stoics believed in a determined world, and said that acting virtuously, which meant in accordance with nature, was the correct, moral way to live. In order to act virtuously it was necessary to follow the dictates of reason, or Logos, which is contained in everything in the world, a kind of animating fire that penetrates matter to give it life. They thought that all evil and suffering came from ignorance of our true place in the order of things. In the paintings of Poussin, Logos seems to be shown through the light of the sun, sometimes no longer visible but pervading every part of the scene with heavenly beauty. We need to strive towards a better understanding and practice of Logos in every moment of our waking lives, but if we get too close to it we will be assimilated into a universal oneness. My own interpretation of this is that although we must always seek it, a true perception of Logos, the nature of the world, will lead to the annihilation of the self, because it is only our constructed view of the world that gives us our sense of self. We are by nature mythmakers.

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These 17th-century landscapes invite contemplation. If there are figures, they are humble and small in scale. Nature predominates. Light enfolds the scenes, plants push through cracks in the masonry, sometimes wild storms whip the trees as the shepherd struggles to bring his flock home. Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego depicts three shepherds and a shepherdess, also thought to be the figure of Reason. They are reading the inscription on a grave, in an Arcadian setting of trees, hills and sky. It is a memento mori, a reminder that Arcadia contains the annihilation of all living things. Poussin’s landscapes were beautiful, like the Dutch 17th-century still lifes which suggest that life is transitory and that it is in vain to hold tightly to something which will simply rot away in your hands. The exquisite beauty of Arcadian landscapes and Dutch still lifes only serves to emphasise the intangibility of existence.


II In the next part of my talk I want to tell you about how I constructed this work, but first a word about my relationship to photography. Somehow there’s a myth out there that photography is reality. For me photography is a tool at the beginning of a long process. I take photographs with a particular feeling in mind or heart. The photo or photos of a plant, or person, have to contain enough information for my purposes. I take several exposures to ferret out this information. I used hundreds of photos from scores of locations for this work. I will change the light, the colours, the very structure of the plant to make it fit the place I am creating for it, but here I have tried to retain the order, the Logos within the natural scene I have created. I need photography but I don’t like my photographs. It’s more like I am going out and snipping off little bits of the world with my scissors. Then I take them home and make imaginary theatres with them. This Arcadia is composed somewhat differently from the conventional structure of the 17th-century Arcadia. Instead of seeing the temple or folly from the perspective of a pastoral foreground, we are standing inside it. The only way out of the gallery space is through the mind’s eye. Poussin once painted himself with a third eye in the middle of his forehead – the eye of the imagination. An art gallery is a contemporary temple to the mysterious, the unknowable; but also to aspiration and the desire to possess.

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The panels are breaks in the exhibition space, windows onto a cloistered walkway made of cracked, ageing concrete. Pillars frame a wild park beyond, perhaps a metaphor for the limits we impose on our perception, in order to see anything at all. To see completely would be annihilation of the self. We need to box in and tame nature with an aesthetic. And indeed, the park is not all wilderness but also shows signs of the human hand. There is a sense of a past long gone, an intention that has lost its purpose. There are a few distinctive elements which invite questions but do not dictate a particular story. Everyone who sees this work asks me what the car represents. I don’t really know myself but people have suggested all kind of things: it could be about a lack of connection in our technological age, or form part of a crime scene. I’ve been asked if it carries an environmental message, or refers to Victorian ideas of progress. In 17th-century landscapes the power of nature reminds us that death is ever present: lightning storms, torrents, even accidents are portrayed. In the 21st century the threat is sadly man-made: a chronic mistake, a severe lack of comprehension of Logos. All I know is that I felt the car to be a necessary intrusion into this Arcadia. Facing the car is a round pool which invites both literal and figurative reflection. Poussin often painted ponds and lakes which are thought to be metaphors for the inner peace gained from acceptance. So the scene is framed at one end by a sense of threat and at the other by a nostalgic stillness.

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The middle ground offers welcoming glades and soft patches of grass, but unlike the endless vistas in Lorrain’s paintings, the background is closed in by trees. It’s impossible to situate this place in a greater topography, which limits its narrative potential. The half-light is the compositional key to the ‘invention’. It could be dawn, or dusk, or even moonlight in places; it allows a sense of the infinite in spite of the enclosing trees.

Arcadia is a beautiful place where the imagination can freely wander. It is a place we can never be, and a metaphor for the place we occupy at any given moment in our lives. I have really loved painting it. It has been an exercise in obsession and restraint at the same time. It is an ‘invention’, and probably even a folly – because it took a long, long time to make it.

The only figures are the two children. The younger one is immersed in the landscape, while the older already seems to be emerging into self-consciousness, as he walks through the cloister and looks towards us. In childhood we all experienced a magical reality, but as adults we have lost that playful freedom, that immediate paradise. As adults we can sit and try to absorb what is around us, but our tragedy is that we are always aware that we are doing it. Self-consciousness is our shame: it is only after eating the apple of knowledge and discovering that we are distinct from the world around us, only when we suddenly see ourselves, that we are expelled from Eden.

Artist’s talk on the occasion of the exhibition Arcadia, Stevenson, Cape Town, March 2011

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I have always loved doll’s houses. In those safe little rooms I could imagine an ordered world. I could look through the windows, back into the real world, and be a stranger to it. As I grew older, the walls of the doll’s house became the edges of the canvas. Paintings are the windows through which I regard life.

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Dioramas, like doll’s houses, are a form of stilled life, which often allude to an Arcadian time, where humans were less disembodied by technology. Human attempts to represent reality are driven by a need to carve out a safe, more simple space within it. Wallace Stevens said: “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.” To grasp at life as it rushes by, maybe we have to pursue this paradox: we exist in metaphorical space.

In this series of paintings, the insertion of an overarching box acts like the red rope stretched across the front of the diorama. It transforms landscapes into distilled miniatures. As in the addictive realm of the basement train set or doll’s house, time does not exist, there is no place for the body except in the imagination, and there is no connection to the outside world. It’s shocking to realise that the world is only visible to us through these filters. But there is relief in it too. Inside the box, you can enjoy the idea that any representation is a formal pretence, a powerful illusion, a fantasy.

On Dioramas, January 2011

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I would like to talk first about how this exhibition came into being. My initial impulse was a vision of the sea in turmoil. I wanted to do several paintings of the sea close up, without a horizon, to create the experience of being engulfed. I remembered the children’s bible I was given at the age of five, which contained a painted image spread across a double page of Moses parting the waters. Two huge masses of water reared up on either side of a tiny group of people toiling through a narrow passage that ended in darkness. I was so scared of this picture, which depicted the threat of total annihilation, that I glued the pages together so that I would never accidentally see it.

Although in the end I only did one painting of the sea, I dreamed of the Land of Cockaigne, that medieval idea of paradise where hams fly into your mouth and your every sensual wish is granted. Although I was afraid of the sea image, I longed nonetheless for places where one can drown in oblivion. Every painting I do comes from the same need to inhabit this land, to create a sense of engulfment, of complete enclosure, to blind and deafen and numb myself through the senses in order to find some peace. I persist with the image until no uncertainty remains within it, and I am thus provided daily with the illusion of certainty. Michael Stevenson said to me that I ‘unpaint’ them, and this is true. The expressive, free, loose brushstroke that characterises my underpainting could be seen as being more full of life and idiosyncrasy than the finished work. There is relief for the onlooker in the looseness of paint because we can retain our illusions about what painting is, about the genius of the mark, about the specialness of the creator, indeed about each of our uniqueness and specialness as differentiated from the mass around us. But I don’t find relief in that kind of self-expression. Rather it makes me anxious because I would seem to be claiming so much and substantiating so little. I would feel fraudulent.

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Instead, as I slowly approach realism, with layer upon layer of smaller and smaller marks, which only service that realism, I efface myself from the painting. The finished surface is an annihilation of the self. It is full submersion; the tiny brush marks gently stroke the surface, sealing it like a skin so that each image is its own universe, an entity with its innards hidden. I seek out subjects that do not interfere too much with this sense of a sealed world. These subjects do not batter us with the noise of significance; they are not political or conceptual. I long for peace, to be able to look at these paintings and be at rest from the painfulness of life, from the expectant fabrications of meaning. To be clear: this does not mean I long for images depicting peacefulness, or shy away from ones which may reflect emotion. What I mean is that when I look at a painting or at any art I do not want to be given an intellectual lesson. That would make the artwork a kind of visual text, and text is not peaceful, it is a noise in the head. The more peaceful I feel the more I can play with the language of painting, throwing red herrings out of the looming water to get those of us ‘in the know’ following paths in mazes of dead-end symbolism, chasing our own tails because we think they belong to a mythical beast, until we are exhausted and faced with only our own behinds, or just our shadows.

I am a slave to painting. It is a Faustian pact. Faust made a deal with the devil, driven by hopelessness, disgust and despair with material pleasures. Faust promised to give up his soul if he could find an ultimate moment of happiness in the pleasures of the world, and he spent years pursuing his wildest fantasies. And what are the pleasures of the world but escapes, opportunities to be consumed and engulfed, by consuming and engulfing things, food, people? My Faustian pact offers me containment. In painting illusions of containment, I feel contained. Of course I am not, because it is simply not possible to be contained. It is the illusion of an illusion. My prize, my ultimate moment of fulfillment, stands ever propped up before me and I reach towards it, I am in love with it and addicted to it and dream of falling into it. But in exchange I must give up not my soul but time and my bodily presence, my physical striving. Day after day, I creep over the surface, applying paint to the backdrop before which I stand, giving up countless hours of life for hours of spellbound stasis before the canvas. As Faust consumed and was consumed by worldly pleasure, I am consumed by this act of painting. As I am in a holding pattern, my paintings are embodiments of holding patterns.

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There is something difficult to swallow in looking at these paintings. I think it’s because lifetime and the body are used up in the making of these suspended animations, these vain embodiments of desire, these beautiful nothings, and that raises questions about the nature of value. What is the value of any labour, in a world where something for nothing is highly prized, and labour as value sounds like fascist idealism, or an anachronistic harking back to good old days when rules still applied and if you did the right thing you got your just desserts? How can labour still have value in a world where the looser the brushstrokes, the more genius can be projected into the spaces between them? The Land of Cockaigne is the land of contraries, where everything is topsy-turvy and against the rules and received wisdoms of society. It is the land where everything is allowed. The irony is that we believe we live in this land in our supposedly postmodern universe, especially in the realm of art where it is claimed anything goes and people go to great pains to demonstrate this without seeming to go to great pains. I would say that these paintings are paradoxical apparitions from the Land of Cockaigne. They seem real, but only show up the illusion. They are sublime, and therefore ridiculous. They flaunt beauty and skill but these attributes float like detached retinas; they form a screen blinding the onlooker to the painting’s artificial truth, its true lie.

The Faustian Pact, written on the occasion of the exhibition Land of Cockaigne, Stevenson, Johannesburg, April 2012

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Nowadays, the myth we believe is that all beliefs are myth. Like a religion, it has a circular logic that baffles all objections. But we are human, and so even if we know in our minds that what we believe is a myth and only exists relative to us, we believe it anyway. Surely living with this paradox can help us morally, help us behave better towards others. Because if we take ourselves too seriously, we are full of scorn, and if we don’t take ourselves seriously enough, then we founder in despair.

I love middle age. You realise that you can’t take credit for or be blamed for who you are, and you realise that you are not special and different. You see that luck accounts for so much, and that you are trusting to it all the time. You see that you believe in right and wrong even if sometimes you are not sure what is right and what is wrong. You feel more grateful. The paintings I’ve done for this exhibition remind me of my favourite paintings and favourite tales. They are mannered. I have used a few well-worn formulas, a little romanticism, some classical poses, the drama of light and colour. In spite of this mildly distasteful posturing, I believe completely and passionately in my fictions, my pictures, and wish to touch and entrance you with them. I hope they are beautiful in spite of their beauty, so to speak.

On Pictures, Stevenson, Cape Town, September 2013

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Pictures require human presence to come to life, like a jug needs liquid, or shoes need feet. Pictures are really just thin paint on canvas. Jonathan Franzen said that images are compelling not because they are so powerful, but because the real world is so weak. We see them in the same way that we see reality, through our mind’s eye. They seize the same parts of the brain. The world also requires human presence to be perceived; the world is also like a jug, an empty shoe.

However, pictures are different in one respect from the world. They are necessarily formulaic, they are reduced and stilled, they are conceits. In that way, they reflect the way we perceive. While we are looking, a picture can serve as a holding place for the noise in our heads, because it is finite. It is as if the formulated picture can ease the stress of constantly having to formulate thought. A picture is a form of refuge. There is relief in dwelling in a not-new picture, in embracing the foolishness of the formula, in discovering the beauty of each small detail that is woven into the picturesque whole. And while we are there, noticing the leaves, the clouds, the way the paint has described the folds of silk, perhaps something indescribable can be felt. Perhaps a kind of recognition or thankfulness is possible when we stop striving to comprehend. We can look around, and for a short moment find ourselves in a landscape that we always knew was there.

April 2013

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LIST OF WORKS


To Be Alone

Everything Matters

2009 Oil on canvas Triptych, left panel 200 x 250cm, centre panel 200 x 300cm, right panel 200 x 250cm

2008/9 Oil on canvas Diptych, left panel 300 x 200cm, right panel 300 x 200cm p20-21

p16-17

The Same Place

Subject 1

Subject 2

2009 Oil on canvas 250 x 200cm

2009 Oil on canvas 300 x 200cm

2009 Oil on canvas 300 x 200cm

p23

p29

p28

Arcadia 2010 Oil on canvas 11 panels, 300 x 200cm each p40-45

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Small Diorama 1

Small Diorama 2

Small Diorama 3

Small Diorama 4

Small Diorama 5

2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

p51

p51

p51

p51

p50

Diorama 1

Diorama 2

Diorama 3

2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm

2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm

2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm

p54

p54

p53

Diorama 4

Diorama 5

Diorama 6

2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm

2011 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm

2011 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm

p55

p53

p55


Path 2

Path 3

Diorama 7

2011 Oil on canvas 200 x 51cm

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 50cm

2011 Oil on canvas 90 x 200cm

p56

p56

p57

Still Life 1

Still Life 2

Still Life 3

Still Life 4

Still Life 5

2010 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

p58

p58

p59

p59

p59

Land of Cockaigne 1

Land of Cockaigne 2

Land of Cockaigne 3

Land of Cockaigne 4

Land of Cockaigne 5

Land of Cockaigne 6

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm

p74

p64

p69

p65

p71

2011 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm p70

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Model for a Garden

Yellow Bird Picture

2012 Oil on canvas 250 x 200cm

2011 Oil on canvas 200 x 250cm

2013 Oil on canvas 200 x 200cm

p75

p79

p78

Emperor

Picture 2

Picture 3

Picture 4

Picture 5

Picture 6

2012 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2013 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2013 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2013 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2013 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2012 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

p102

p83

p91

p87

p96

p103

Picture 7

Picture 8

Picture 9

Picture 10

Picture 11

Picture 12

2012 Oil on canvas 250 x 200cm

2012 Oil on canvas 200 x 230cm

2012 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2012 Oil on canvas 230 x 200cm

2012 Oil on canvas 190 x 190cm

2013 Oil on canvas 190 x 190cm

p82

p107

p97

p86

p95

p111

Picture 1

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Deborah Poynton was born in 1970 in Durban, and lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1987 to 1989. She has held six solo exhibitions at Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg. She showed at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban, in 2010, and held her first US solo exhibitions at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s galleries in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, in 2009; a monograph, Deborah Poynton: Everything Matters, was published to accompany these exhibitions. Group shows include Eros and Thanatos at Baumwollspinnerei, Leipzig, Germany (2012); A Conversation with Bolus at the Michaelis Galleries, University of Cape Town (2011); Von Liebeslust und Lebenslast – der inszenierte Alltagat, Corvey Castle, near Höxter, Germany (2009); and New Painting at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban, Unisa Art Gallery in Pretoria and Johannesburg Art Gallery (2006).

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Published by Stevenson Š 2013 for works & texts by Deborah Poynton: the artist Isbn 978-0-620-57420-4 Front cover Picture 10, 2012 (detail) Back cover Picture 9, 2012 (detail) Co-ordination Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town

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Deborah Poynton: Pictures