Escape to Cockaigne

2012-04-13 13:16

There are few painters who manage to formulate such ghostly impressions out of mundane images of the everyday world as Deborah Poynton. The Capetonian artist’s combination of colossal canvases and hyperrealistic detail lends eerie qualities to her subjects.

In what is her first show at the Stevenson gallery in Joburg, her famously enormous nudes are paired with a series of un-peopled landscapes and shrubberies in exhibition.

There, in the echoprone art caven, the work sets something ghostly loose to stalk the gallery space, felt yet not completely actualised. While enthralled in Poynton’s painterly apparitions, one can’t help but feel like novelist Robert Payne observed in The Splendor of Greece.

“The menace”, here conjured by Poynton’s pictorial charm, “is all the greater because it is never completely expressed. We are haunted by a presence that never reveals itself, but there is no doubting that it is there.”

Payne was writing about the ghosts that inhabit the ruins of ancient Greece. Poynton paints about the spirit of a particular fantasy, the Land of Cockaigne. This is also the title of this exhibition, which comprises 10 artworks – five landscapes and five portraits.

Cockaigne is a fantastic land of plenty in popular European medieval literature. It’s an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease, where physical pleasures are always immediately at hand. It rains cheese, and ham flies into your gaping mouth.

About her approach to this idea of escaping or searching for this fantastic land of plenty in her work, Poynton writes: “In the Land of Cockaigne, every wish was granted. I have used this title not because I wanted to illustrate paradise, but because painting itself is that land of never-realised fulfilment. Every painting I do comes from the same need to inhabit this land, to create a sense of engulfment, of complete enclosure, to blind and deafen, and numb myself through the senses in order to find some peace.”

To achieve this sense of engulfment or feeling of being contained, each of the paintings’ compositions is denied a horizon, no means of escaping the sensual detail that seems to engulf the onlooker. The works create a space into which the onlooker is absorbed and set to roam.

Like in the work titled Model for a Garden, hung to greet viewers as they enter the gallery, it sets the tone for the show. Here the artist depicts a lush green landscape, something like a wild labyrinth.

The work has an alluring force that invites the viewer to enter into it, like climbing through a portal to escape.
Once drawn in and surrounded by the eerie greenery, one is sent into a search of Cockaigne in the painting’s imaginary containment.

About this in her work, Poynton writes: “I seek out subjects who do not interfere too much with this sense of a sealed world.” Hence about realising their visual affect she adds: “I persist with the image until no uncertainty remains within it, and I am provided daily with the illusion of certainty.”

This is most vivid in her quintessential portraits of her companions and herself. In the self-portrait, titled Land of Cockaigne 1, she paints her own nude figure lying on an ocean of red velvet. The pleasure of the moment is unquestionable. Both for the depicted subject and the hand that paints the lavish motifs.

However, a sustained encounter with the image raises other troubling questions. You start to wonder if the floating figure is actually drowning. So that out of this fantasy of pleasure and plenty, a new discourse about the danger of oversatisfaction is inaugurated.

In the end, we have to speculate if perhaps novelist Truman Capote was right: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

» Land of Cockaigne is on at the Stevenson gallery until May 18. See for an image gallery

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