Deborah Poynton: Proverb

20 March - 14 May 2021
  • Stevenson Johannesburg is pleased to present Proverb, an exhibition of new paintings by Deborah Poynton. The canvases, with their intensely detailed realism, are light and playful in their construction, yet 'reflect on the essence of life', as the curator of Poynton's upcoming survey exhibition has observed of her work.

  • Poynton writes of the group and its title:


    ‘Terse, humorous, metaphorical, a proverb delivers truth with a light slap of recognition, an admonishment to do better next time.


    These paintings seem to me imbued with a kind of droll fatalism. The lesson not-quite-learned is on the tip of my tongue. The animals regard us quizzically from a mossy slope, or dog basket, or lush field, not caring to share what they know.


    A proverb is not attached to a real-life place or time. Like a well-worn joke, it hovers and gets passed along, a thing unto itself. It’s like a series of moves, a code.


    A painting is so often attached, like scar tissue, to a grudge, or an idealism, or a hope, or even, like a photograph, to a moment in time. A painting is so often attached by apron strings to its maker.


    My wish is to cut a painting free, let it drift along in its own series of moves, let it have its own code.

    If a painting lends itself to freedom, perhaps its truth can be recognised like the punchline of a joke, with a kind of chastened pleasure. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, seeing is believing, and we should make hay while the sun shines.’

  • proverb 1, 2020

     'It was quite hard to force the landscape into the shape I wanted and apply light that would hold it together, just. There is a frozen, restful feeling to it. At the same time, it occupies that exact line between gravitas and kitsch, I think many of my paintings do. There is a comforting lack of commitment in that. I sometimes think we take art so seriously that we have forgotten how to enjoy it.'



  • proverb 2, 2020

    'Proverbs are not about new ideas. They are as old as the hills. For me, painting is not about trying to say something new. It’s about offering a platter of familiar treats, about entertaining, and maybe about tweaking at the heart. I am always so struck by how beauty has no principles. It will attach itself to anything. Beauty is the palliative, the sweetener – it allows me not to say anything much.'

  • proverb 3, 2021 proverb 3, 2021

    ‘The figure is you or me looking, it’s not the painted subject. She just holds a position, marks a place for us. Her delicate vulnerability and strength could be ours, if we let it.’


    Video with audio commentary
  • proverb 4, 2021

    'My subject matter is all locally sourced, easily accessible material for moulding a world. The author Kate Atkinson said, "Writing for me is quite a plastic form, a kind of mental sculpture … it acquires its character and depth as it goes along." Painting is a bit like that for me, a kind of malleable space that slowly becomes dense and rich and sweet, like a fruit cake.'

  • proverb 5, 2021

    'There’s something confounding and impenetrable about open-ended realism. It just is. That is its strength and its gift. 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.'

  • proverb 6, 2021 proverb 6, 2021

    'I like the idea of art as a proverb, because a proverb delivers with ease. It’s immediate and eternal, it’s amusing, it makes you look at yourself with a laugh of embarrassed recognition. A sermon may also deliver, but you may have to try hard to get something from it, and master your own boredom and the pain of sitting on that hard pew, unless the priest is a gifted raconteur and philosopher. I am trying hard not to produce sermons, though I often feel I just end up with nothing at all. That’s the risk one must take.'


  • proverb 7, 2021

    'Proverbs are universal, and although paintings cannot be entirely universal, as they are always attached to their context, I tend not to pursue the personal in my paintings. In this series I have painted the same people as in previous series, perhaps because it is not about them at all. They are just people enacting people.'


  • proverb 8, 2021

    ‘Detritus, trash, an absurdly red flower, and these big-leaved, lush plants, all contribute to a vaguely dystopian mood, but then the baboons are so humorous, gazing out satirically as if to point out that it’s not entirely clear who’s looking and who’s being looked at. They seem to embody a proverb of some kind, if one could only understand it.’


  • Proverb 9, 2021 Proverb 9, 2021

    'There’s lots of nature in my work, but often with bits of human insertions, which to me are a kind of violence, full of hubris.'


  • dog and ball, 2021
    dog and ball, 2021

    'This is such a hashtag picture, except it isn’t really. The dog is remote, dignified in spite of its delicious white curls and coiffed fringe. The slasto is a piece of South Africa. It’s all empty, with a dramatic sky and no people. And then there’s this insanely yellow ball. There was nothing more to add.'


    Video with audio commentary
  • rooster and jet, 2021
    rooster and jet, 2021

    'I am lazy and greedy, and I don’t want to have to try when I look at art. I want my enjoyment to be given to me on a golden, intricate platter, so that I can just lavish love on it and revel in it. I want the illusion of possession. I want the art to lift me lightly over the threshold of my fears, overwhelm me with its beauty and pathos, amuse me with its indulgences. It can be mysterious, but not dull. A dreary mystery is a contradiction in terms.'


    Video with audio commentary
  • sheep and fireflies, 2021 sheep and fireflies, 2021

    'In the end, my hope is that a person looking at one of my paintings will feel happier, not more sad, closer, not more isolated. I hope they will be relieved from the pressure of their anxieties for a brief moment. The world is frightening and beautiful. We artists are fools. I think my job as a foolish artist is to entertain and give joy in the best way I can.'

    Video with audio commentary 
  • Prices exclude framing, shipping and taxes

  • A survey exhibition of Poynton’s work of the past decade, titled Beyond Belief and curated by Karlijn de Jong, is scheduled to take place at the Drents Museum – an institution with a focus on contemporary realist painting – in Assen, the Netherlands, from 10 July to 28 November 2021.

    Click here to view a short documentary on her work produced by the museum.