10 Nov Featured: Marlene Steyn Paints Her “Many Selves” in Flourishing Tableaus
Marlene Steyn’s work is like reading a foreign language backwards and, as if by magic, understanding what it means. That is to say, it isn’t meant to be approached head on – it requires a path more ductile and unsolidified. The laws of physics matter little in Marlene’s flourishing tableaus, which star any number of her “many selves” sporting fried eggs for knees, twisted tongues, and limbs climbing into – or out of – other limbs. Her work is unusually beautiful yet grotesque; a combination both thrilling and mesmerising. We spoke to Marlene about her inter-braided world and her solo show, The End Is Located Underneath Her Third Armpit (if the muscle is flexed), currently on at Commune.1 in Cape Town.
The relationships that women have – with themselves, their sisters, their children, their friends and their partners – seem to factor in your work quite significantly. These are often portrayed physically, through conjoined limbs or body parts. Tell us about this aspect of your work?
Through my work, I aim to open up and stir the human ego (sense of self). If the ego is an egg, I guess one can say that I break it and scramble it to make many side dishes.
In my paintings I usually start with my selves (I say this to emphasise the many selves I think the self hosts); placing and painting her in a contained narrative and then expanding these selves to collide with objects and subjects surrounding them.
S/he is usually in the company of her mothers, lovers, sisters and best friends, and all of these people form her as s/he forms them; each one bringing out a different self in her. The characters are simultaneously doppelgangers and daughters; look-alike cannibals and sisters. Visually I had to find a way to express this interwoven state, and using for instance the limbs, orifices, body hair and tongues of the selves, I attempt to create a clustered moiety that depicts the complex fluidity of being.
*A note: I use the term s/he to refer to an in-between sense of self that is not fully female or male. My figures initially appear as women, but on closer inspection one can see that body hair and facial features attempt to partially unsettle this.
A piece ‘Our Eyes Met’ depicts two people gazing at one another, who in their togetherness form a complete face. What’s the symbolism at play in this, and other similar works?
In ‘Our Eyes Met’ the two people are gazing at each other and also shaking hands. Because when we look at each other, our eyes shake hands without the germ-contamination. In this quick-drawn sketch I was playing with the idea of creating a face within a face, eyes looking at each other, who are in fact looking back at themselves. They are thus projecting themself and a third face simultaneously. Maybe the third face is also their love child, or the figure on the left side’s stalker.
Are you influenced by optical – or real world – illusions?
They are part of the same braid. The optical illusion is born out of the real world and vice versa. I think the unconscious is sometimes more real, but not always invited into the living room.
You work across mediums, from painting to sculpture. How do you approach the art-making process?
I am first and foremost a drawer; in the sense that I constantly draw and that I am a sliding container filled with brain folders of ideas for paintings. When I open the drawer, I paint whatever drawing(s) spills out first. I like to have breaks from drawing with paint, and enjoy the physical three-dimensional drawing that sculpture allows.
What are some of the recurring themes in your work?
An interwoven self (with tassels), the s/he and sea of selves, human-furniture, mythology (especially where metamorphosis occur), art history, the un(der)conscious, the body without organs, an end that is also a beginning, body braiding, knees that can also be eggs…
What do pieces like ‘Her Longest Distant Relationship with Herselves’ reveal about you?
I live inside my head-house, travelling very far outside of my body (in a window that is constructed out of thirsty doppelgangers). If one goes outside of oneself, to observe/reflect, you are in a way more inside/aware of yourself. I often feel like this when I am painting, needing to roll my eyes backwards to look deep into my skull to be able to get an ‘objective’ distance (night-goggles is recommended).
Having exhibited extensively abroad, how does it feel to bring your work back home with your solo show at Commune. 1?
Although I have had 2 previous solo shows in London before The End Is Located Underneath Her Third Armpit (if the muscle is flexed) at Commune.1, I have never exhibited in such a large gallery…and for someone who makes very large paintings, it was a euphoric experience. It was also the first time that I saw a lot of the works together that have been shipped from abroad, and I was excited to see connections I haven’t thought of before.
Before graduating from the Royal College of Art in London last year, you attended the University of Stellenbosch. How did these experiences shape you as an artist and influence your work
These experiences shaped me and my paintbrush-movements in more ways than I can ever try to articulate. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do my undergraduate degree in the nurturing department of Stellenbosch, where I had some amazing tutors and fellow students, and also a quad where we had themed parties and coffee drinking marathons. The Royal College of Art has an intensive two years masters degree in painting, and there I was challenged to push and develop my own voice among 60 plus other painters from around the world. We were encouraged to constantly critique each other and our selves, always challenging our practise and taking risks. The masters degree, combined with living (and not sleeping) in the dynamic city and art centre of London gave me the confidence to develop the inter-braided world I am currently exploring in my practise.
What got you interested in art as a career to begin with? Was creativity a central part of your upbringing?
Since before I can remember, when I was a baby ape in the mountain, art has always been my passion and my way of filtering the world. For me, a blank page was, and still is, a complete world where what I see, dream, hear, and learn can co-exist without negation. I wasn’t necessarily raised in a creative environment (although my mother makes masterpieces in the kitchen), but my parents identified my love for art-making from an early age and encouraged it. I am also one of four children and we were always making concerts and dressing-up. I am very fortunate for my career to be my passion, and to have the biggest cheerleading and supportive family.
Aesthetically speaking, how has your work changed or evolved over the years?
The work has simultaneously become more complicated and lighter. The interconnected tendencies, morphology, body-distortions, layered language and allusions to pattern and tapestries in the work have been pushed to reach a very intricate and eye-jumping surface where back- and foregrounds collide. At the same time, I have attempted to allow the raw sketch, and original bare linen or canvas to remain unspoilt in certain areas of the work, offering a lightness and breathing space for the claustrophobic bacchanalian organisation.
Your titles are ambiguous and playful. Do these phrases inspire the works, or vice versa?
It’s a vice versa situation. At times they spark out of a painting while I am making it in a “eureka moment”…and sometimes with difficulty and frown-lines afterward. Eye like words to sometimes be slippery like paint or sticky like toothpaste…or to be too short like a skimpy tutu, or too long like-when-someone-tells-a-story-in-such-an-elaborate-way-that-you-stop-listening-to-the-content-and-start-enjoying-the-movement-of-their-twitching-eyebrow.
Who do you make art for?
I make them for the eyes that will accidentally or intentionally fall on them, in- and outside the art world. Especially for the sets of eyes who really look at them and allow the painting to change the way they look at themselves.
What’s next on your horizon?
A figure who dives into herselves without a snorkel. There’s also an eye on my ringfinger and a Hermanus sunset.
See Marlene’s exhibition The End Is Located Underneath Her Third Armpit (if the muscle is flexed) at Commune.1 in Cape Town until 17 November.