Illusion and trickery in Deborah Poynton’s ‘Scenes of a Romantic Nature’

Deborah Poynton’s new solo exhibition opened last week at Stevenson Johannesburg. It consists of 21 new large paintings and, for the first time, accompanying drawings. The exhibition comprises two series – Scenes of a Romantic Nature (from which the exhibition takes its name), and the Proposition paintings.

The ‘scene’ paintings in this exhibition are Poynton’s signature scenes – detailed, intricate, romantic yet slightly disconcerting. They are also deliberately constructed, fake; there’s nothing natural about them. In contrast with the mastery of the execution, the images themselves are trite, bordering on kitsch – sunsets, beaches, horses, children – which affirms Poynton’s opinion that it’s not possible to paint anything new. Her interest therefore does not lie in what an image is, rather in what it does and how it makes you feel. This contradiction in style, where the realism doesn’t in fact signify anything, is important to Poynton, who prefers to leave her paintings open to the viewer to make their own reading. “I do like to poke and trigger”, she tells us at her walkabout for the show, “to give the feeling that something should be evoked”. This echoes a previous assertion that “art is always artful, a ruse, a trick. It is part of the dream that we inhabit”.

This dream is framed by our own subjective filters, Poynton says, which cut us off from the world and deny us the possibility of immersion in it. We are therefore always standing on the outside looking in, as we stand in the gallery looking into the world that she has painted. We feel longing and nostalgia when we look at these paintings, but also frustration because we cannot access what we are excluded from. The figure paintings appear to offer a way in to this world through their life-like realism, but this is another illusion, an artistic trick, like the painting within a painting in Idyll 2.

The reference to 17th – 19th century European Romantic painting in the title of the show and the composition and style of the ‘scene’ paintings is another such deception. Where the Romantic painters endeavoured to depict the triumph of reason symbolised by man at harmony with nature, Poynton’s paintings suggest the failure of this through the beauty of the imagery. In Poynton’s ‘scenes’ the figures are not dwarfed by nature, rather being swallowed up by it, and we on the outside feel the terror associated with this.

Five of the paintings in this exhibition appear at first to be there by mistake. What are large white canvases with smatterings of coloured paint doing alongside these intensely detailed and dense scenes of a Romantic nature? The Proposition paintings are the result of several years of research into the art of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. “The two styles are the same” Poynton says, “there is no difference except for my need for a lot of labour” she continues with a laugh. The ‘propositions’ are as illusory as the ‘scenes’, the only difference is that the surface in the latter, or skin as she calls it, is so thick; the illusion so complete. They are therefore simply different sides of the same coin – the positive and negative of the same reflection.

The ‘propositions’ represent a significantly personal journey for Poynton, a stripping away at the illusion of labour which has been central to her practice for the past 25 years. But this is yet another illusion, as the marks on the canvas are no less deliberate and precise than those in the scene paintings. Hung side-by-side, the ‘propositions’ mirror the ‘scenes’ so perfectly in both style and subject. So while the two series appear superficially to be speaking in different visual languages, Poyton assures us that they are both saying the exact same thing, and that word is: Invention.

055K4143 Scene with Horses in a Quarry055K4133  Scene with Two Boys in a Boat055K4121 Scene with a Fire055K7069 055K4116 Scene with Strelitzias055K5924 Seascape with Red Flowers


All images supplied by the gallery. ©Deborah Poynton. Photo: Mario Todeschini


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