Realism is something of an anathema for the contemporary art world, and I can’t quite work out why. Just before going to see Deborah Poynton’s latest show, ‘Proverb’, at Stevenson in Johannesburg, I listened to a discussion with one of my favourite US painters, Richard Phillips. He spoke about the power of realism to destabilize our understanding of images, and therefore challenge certain assumptions about beauty, the role of art in the contemporary moment, and the power structures we inhabit. Though he was obviously speaking about his own work, this creation of an opposition between realism’s possibilities and what he describes as abstraction’s ‘retreat into dots and stripes and patterns’ seems compelling to me. And this assessment of the state of play in painting was a prescient thing to have heard just before seeing the 12 astounding paintings that make up Poynton’s exhibition, her first solo in Johannesburg in three years.
Of course, the passageway between abstraction and figuration (if not always realism) is a well-trodden one. Twentieth century luminaries Lichtenstein and Guston famously moved from Abstract Expressionism’s hegemony to embrace some form of representational painting. And Photorealism’s erstwhile darling, Chuck Close, made a more dramatic shift, from abstraction to high-key, photograph-assisted realism in the late 60s.
So, given this history, why has the exodus back to (as Jerry Saltz puts it) Crapstraction been so steady in the last decade or so? Why has realism fallen out of favour as at least an equal lingua franca for painters in the contemporary scene? Part of the reason must be the unwillingness of universities and art colleges to teach convincingly representational painting. My sense has often been that the burden of proof is heavier for realism at places where art is studied, that its justification of its own existence needs to be so much stronger than the one expected of looser painting, and especially abstraction. Wave some clever phrases about reworking Modernism at the problem; tell them you’re ironically retreading the failed project in order to critique it and ka-ching! You’re off to the races. Meanwhile, realism is expected to jump through hoops to prove that it’s not (just) Western imperialism made flesh, and not an embarrassingly earnest aberration in an irony-crazed industry.
Another reason is undoubtedly that abstraction is easier to live with. The vagueness of non-representational works means that, as with clouds, we’re able to project our meanings, psychological, emotional, onto their forms. “Is this painting telling me to smash the state?” “No, I think this one is about their childhood.” It’s easier to hold one’s composure seated next to a latter-day colourfeld work than it is next to a finely-wrought, brutally honest nude, for example.
There is no such vagueness available to us in Poynton’s work; certainly not in the forms of her images. She’s made a career out of visually describing in painstaking (sometimes genuinely painful) detail the undulations of skin, of water, of the surfaces of objects, and even of light itself. Focus often seems equal across every square inch of her canvases, as if a mania for recording rather than an attempt at photographic accuracy, is her driver.
Also, none of the easy default to ‘slice of life’ realism for her: she operates in a vein I like to think of as ‘staged realism’ that has more in common with Stanley Spencer than with Richard Estes or even Lucian Freud: compositions are carefully, even artfully, constructed from a variety of sources, and where her images work best for me is where this obvious constructed-ness strains against a style of painting that positively begs your eye to accept it as fact.
This is particularly true in Proverb 5, in which an ironing board, a still-life and two dogs in a dog basket crowd into a large, almost square format. The space doesn’t quite work as an illusion: the still-life feels as if it’s tumbling out the front of the work, reminding one of the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. About this work, Poynton says, ‘Realism is essentially the failure to hold and grasp the world around us. It is an attempt to control the uncontrollable, to make a space in which to have a bit of purchase on the endlessly slipping, slipping world. It doesn’t and can’t succeed. We keep falling.’ The tropical island scene on the ironing board cover, at first seeming like a wry comment on labour and leisure, becomes a reminder of the illusion’s inability to hold together. The somewhat awkwardly rendered iron on the ironing board is a moment in which, it seems, Poynton shows a chink in her previously impenetrable realist armour.
Another such moment comes in Proverb 2, a curious image in which a ragtag flock of birds floats on a white canvas along with a small, somewhat dilapidated fishing boat. If one looks carefully at the birds, one sees red line work used in their initial construction, just at the edges of some of their forms: the intensity of the realism stops for a moment; Poynton draws back the curtain for just a second and allows us to glimpse the machinery that makes the illusion.
The patches of white in some paintings, compositional devices with which Poynton has worked since around 2014, create a way to give relief amid the barrage of detail. This method is used to great effect in Proverb 3, in which an elderly woman lies strangely on a bed of ivy. The openness of the canvas above and below her bring a tenderness to the image, where previously the assault of detail around the figure, as in the 2018 paintings Till Some Blind Hand shall Brush my Wing and The Labours of Hercules would’ve made the scrutiny on the body all the more brutal. The patches of white are also means by which Poynton seems willing to admit an unknowing. They become symbols of the blind spots in our memories, in our grasp of the world, and of our understanding of the human condition. Maybe I’m reaching too far, but this work, specifically, seems to suggest Poynton admitting, despite the intense observation of the figure, not to know much about her life or her experience of aging. Once again, the point of Poynton’s work is to remind us that our faculties of looking and thinking, while amazing, are ultimately fallible and insufficient to generate real understanding of that which is outside ourselves. Our lot is to live in a state of realizing this lack, of needing to understand that we don’t understand much. In a country riven with clashes of difference, it feels like a sage reminder.
The sophistication of Poynton’s interrogation of the visual, of looking, understanding and misunderstanding feels light years away from voguish revivalist strains of painting that litter contemporary galleries. Her work has presence and an aura of seriousness that we sorely need right now.