Being a fan of contemporary African art and everything that may encompass, I was excited to see “Deborah Poynton: Everything Matters” at SCAD’s ACA Gallery. The show did not disappoint. Although there are pieces that did not thrill me, a few standouts made up for it. Her debut solo exhibition in the United States, this South Africa-born painter split her time growing up between England, Swaziland, the United States, and South Africa. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design for two years before returning to South Africa to paint full-time.
There are ten pieces in the show, all over six feet tall. Given the size of Poynton’s canvases, her attention to minute detail is impressive. Her painting of the flesh, showcased in Diptych, is reminiscent of Jenny Saville, and, to a lesser extent, Lucian Freud. As with many of Saville’s works, the woman in Diptych is a self-portrait of Poynton. All of her paintings depict realistic portrayals of people including the sags, wrinkles, and wobbly bits. What sets Poynton on another level is her depiction of people in distinct surroundings, while, in Freud and Saville’s work, the figure takes central focus. I would argue that in Poynton’s work, the scenery is just as important.
For example, in The Grip of Circumstances there is a small still life in the lower right, a jumble of books, headphones, cigarettes, cans, and miscellaneous detritus. Although at first you are consumed with this large figure looking out at you, roughly at eye level, your eye then wanders to the pile of junk. What is the significance of the clutter? As your eye wanders around the room, from the crumpled sheets to the strange curtains the answer becomes less clear. The images are ambiguous and allow you as the viewer to fill in the blanks as you please. Poynton’s work challenges our expectations as viewers, proving things are not always as they appear.
This ambiguity is central to Poynton’s work and especially clear in Morality Play II, depicting a nude woman and clothed man. The intense way the man stares out makes me instantly uneasy. Also, why is the woman naked and half-heartedly attempting to cover herself? The predominate blue tones in her skin are also alarming and add to the strangeness of the painting. The Laura Ashley print chair and strange landscape painting on the wall behind the “couple” only compound the scene. Beyond the subject matter, the craftsmanship behind these paintings is astounding. The man’s face is executed to convey his age and his emotion in the most naturalistic way. For this reason, Poynton’s work is often talked about within the tradition of realistic painting.
The least successful piece of the show was Betrayal. It did not seem to flow with the rest of the paintings focusing on a few individuals, their interactions with each other as well as the viewer. The range of emotion expressed by each character is impressive, but overall that is overwhelmed by the overgrown vegetation and sea.
Poynton at her best is an excellent craftswoman with the ability to convey human emotions and challenge our expectations as viewers.
Deborah Poynton’s “Everything Matters” is on view at ACA gallery through March 29.