Deborah Poynton

This week adjective speaks to Deborah Poynton about the relationship between abstraction and realism in her show Picnic that closes this weekend at the Stevenson.

So, I’ve been looking at your painting for years, and something that always struck me was the familiar faces, suddenly I noticed Guy Tillim in one and then David Goldblatt in another…those two particularly pop out, I don’t know any of your other figures, but what’s interesting is that they’re both photographers and a painter painting photographers is quite interesting. How did they come to figure in your work?

Poynton: It was really only Guy and David and just really because I am friends and perhaps also because they both make or take images that it was easy to use them as models because they understood…that’s all there is to it. But I haven’t painted either of them in a while, it’s mainly my family that I paint.

So just recently you’ve taken a very big turn in direction…you’ve been know as a hyper realist…has this been building up for a while and what is the impetus in the shift?

Poynton: Firstly, I don’t really think it’s taken a big turn in direction at all. Just the style is different but the content, the reason that I’m doing it, has not changed in the slightest. I suppose my last show in Johannesburg was so extreme in its detail. But there were five abstract works in that show actually, which were the very beginnings of my attempting something else but the rest was so finely detailed, that I wanted to break out of it. I could carrying on doing that for the rest of my life, maybe I will. I don’t know if it’s even a direction change because I don’t know if I’m on a direction.

In your new works the experiment with hyper-realism and abstraction leads to a kind of exploded view where the viewer is confronted by only a section of the universe…which is a different kind of approach to realism?


Poynton: I suppose I’m just reflecting a binary which is a split in two directions from what is actually the same thing. So, I’ve always felt somewhat frustrated that my so called “hyper realism” has always been identified because people simply can’t see beyond the so-called skill or whatever, to what I’m about, so I suppose in a way it was quite entertaining for me to undermine both sides of that spectrum.

Do you find it frustrating that the label that comes with being a realist painter stops people from looking?

Poynton: Yes it is frustrating but I also get some pleasure in it because there’s a slight needling aspect about it, so I suppose there is a perversity in it, but yes it is frustrating at times. But I don’t think I’m the only person that is not understood as an artist. Few people really engage in what they’re really looking at so I wouldn’t say I’m victimized because I’ve been put in a box as either this or that…

I want to ask about the evolution of where you’ve come to now in this exhibition, developing your skill set as a painter…?

Poynton: I always drew a lot, since I was three years old I’ve always drawn as a way of escaping difficult situations, it’s just been something I’ve done to give meaning to my day really, and to enjoy as a child exploring imaginary places…so I constantly constructed different landscapes and houses with little things in them…I was obsessive about it and it just naturally led to art school and nothing about that impulse has changed, it’s the same as it was when I was three years old.

But it’s only strengthened over various difficult experiences I’ve had, and I’ve always used it as a crutch I suppose.

You’ve said that you need quiet to do these works…?

Poynton: …I was speaking specifically about the abstract painting when I said needed  quiet.

They seem to have a very quiet resonance, a stillness even amongst the scatter, do you see it as something of an ordered chaos?

Poynton: I don’t know it’s not ordered and it’s not chaos, I don’t know if it is…that seems to look for yet another binary in the stream of abstraction.

I think it’s more like an expression of a striving. It doesn’t reflect order or chaos to me. It’s like an expression of longing, and a frustration in a way, it’s like poking at something that you can’t quite get to,  but in that attempt there’s some communication that takes place between me and I hope the other person who views it.

What has also struck me in older works is that the canvas feels very covered, very full, whereas on this show there’s a lot of blank space left on the canvas and as I said it like this exploded view of bits of the world you’ve chosen to look at or identify as defining pieces…so the mind has to fill in the rest…  

Poynton: It’s the same as those in which I’ve covered with a complete skin, that’s also just bits of thing that I’ve chosen to define. It’s just harder to see that because your mind just reads it as truth, so they are the same thing actually. I always found painting in such an intensely, so called “real way”, (when there’s a complete skin covering it), it’s like utterly disappointing and failing to fulfill a need but, there’s something about that which is poignant and moving. Similarly with these…

I noticed that you paint on a very finely woven canvas… does your approach to material inform the way you work?

Poynton: For me it’s never been about the materiality, I would sometimes prefer if there was no weave frankly.

Have you ever painted on board?

Poynton: Yes but only small paintings, sketches really. The way the canvas breathes is what I like.

Funny that you mention small paintings because one of the distinctive things is your size. Particularly in Picnic your scale is intense. Is that down to an immersive quality that scale provides?

Poynton: Totally. It’s really all it is. It just something different to your mind, that when I look at something small, which is theoretical space that becomes experience.


How does one even begin to approach something so big? Isn’t it daunting that size and scale. Are you meticulous in the way you plan things out or do you develop as you go?

Poynton: Well the big four panel work on Picnic started out as two diptychs and it was so boring that I put it together. So I plan to a point with the figure, I need to plan roughly the scale and where its going and so, but I do paint quite gesturally from the beginning, so I don’t project or anything like that. There’s something about a photograph and this scale that doesn’t translate, you have to find the figure anew on that big scale.

You’re often playing with perspective and depth of field in quite a disorientating way…

Poynton: I often feel quite manipulative actually…

Do you? It’s refreshing to hear an artist admit to that.

Poynton: It’s this egomania state of total control…(laughs) … yet on the other hand it can so badly go wrong so I don’t want to sound like a complete shit. It’s also very frightening…

Are there instances when the paintings go wrong?

Poynton: Yes. In fact I’ve thrown away lots of the abstract ones, which hurts like hell…and it’s expensive.

Were they just not working, or…

Poynton: I think if I’m in the wrong mood…especially with the abstract ones then if I’m in the wrong state of mind they just look horrible, you can just see that they’ve been done fearfully or they just don’t work. I start feeling quite paranoid because on the one day I’ll look at it and I’ll think it’s absolutely brilliant and then I’ll come the next day I’ll see that it’s really quite bad and you start mistrusting your own judgement.

But it’s the same with the (so called) realist painting too. I’ve often taken elements out that have somehow let me down.

Where do you live…in the wild?

Poynton: In Tamboerskloof!

Because there’s alway been that intensely botanical allegiance if you like…


Poynton: We have a house in Betty’s Bay and a place in Germany in the country side. I don’t travel, I go between these three places, I don’t go anywhere else, I’m very homey. I’m obsessive about the landscape around us. I’m very connected to those places.

There’s a very intense observation in your work, without wanting to diminish it, that must speak to some kind of relationship you have with the landscape…

Poynton: Well, with the landscape but with everything I suppose, even when I’m painting an object. It comes from twenty years of loving early renaissance, flemish, northern renaissance painting, and that shift from god is in everything, so from the icon to that incredible representation, it’s moving, it doesn’t matter what it’s of. I just happen to love the landscape and bodies, so that’s why I paint those things.

You’ve spoken about your art historical references before, from Casper David Friedrich to your reference of Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass”, how important are those art historical references? Do you consult them in the planning stages?

Poynton: I do look through lots of books but it’s more to gain courage, to find something that I relate to in whatever that person is doing to spur me into action. It’s more for entertainment value, the references are not fundamental…

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