Deborah Poynton’s Model for a World: A Survey of 25 Years of Painting

13 May – 26 July 2014
Curated by Kirsty Cockerill

A Survey of 25 Years of Painting

“Pictures are really just thin paint on canvas.”

Deborah paints on average 7 hours a day. As curator, I feel my way through this exhibition, morning until evening. I stalk it. Looking. Talking. Looking. Reading. Looking. Ruminating. Looking, listening, listening. Deborah keeps painting.

I stop mapping the territory, the coordinates of a 25 year career, the exhibitions, the catalogues. I begin to claim land. I see Poyntonesque paintings in everything, everywhere. The view through a window, into the house next door. There are shoes and a cup on the windowsill. Children playing in a park. Everything is still. Somebody has not made a bed.

“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….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.”

The constructions apparent in Poynton’s childhood drawings are evident in her works to date. Ordered with an idiosyncratic rhythm, an uncanny formula. The watercolour still life of tea cup and lighter, the imagined garden. Copying Leonardo Da Vinci studies and then constructing imagined variations of them… the old antique warrior, the middle-aged antique warrior, the young antique warrior.  The construction remains today, the mastering of medium and technique has continued.The early paintings offer everything in one picture plane. The worlds constructed seem easier to contain that way, but that would be my projection of truth. In the later works, the constructed, imagined worlds spill onto many canvas panels. Environments are created for the viewer to move through, but never enter or exit. Generous. Deflective. Contained.

“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.”

Seems to… but realism is deceptive, realism is not reality.

Generously deflective, the viewer is mesmerized by a painted illusion, the Renaissance stances alluding to metaphor, allegory. The domestic relationships… the grouped objects …The viewer bounces within the works looking for the path out, the moral, the end result, the meaning, the reality, in the end finding their own projection.

I offer you, the viewer, my own construction.  A personally calibrated material experience. A survey designed to function as a collection of marker pegs, staking a spot from which to gain a perspective of 25 years of Deborah Poynton’s paintings.

“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.”

The New Church Museum acknowledges with deep gratitude the generosity of the private and corporate collections who loaned the paintings that manifested this exhibition, the Stevenson for their unfaltering logistical support, and the artist for the generosity in which she allowed the curator into her world.

All quotes from Deborah Poynton’s selected writings and artist talks, jointly published in the catalogue for Pictures by Stevenson, 2013.


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.

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 many 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.

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