10.22.2015 – 11.14.2015
There’s a term used to describe a tendency in art from the post-Roman British Isles, the bulk of which dates back to the early Middle Ages. Horror vacui – the fear of empty spaces. In physics the phrase is shorthand for the more colloquial “Nature abhors a vacuum”. Applied to art, it suggests a mode of working characterised by visual density and excessive ornamentation. No spare inch is spared, not in tapestry nor sculpture nor illustrated manuscript.
Marlene Steyn’s solo show at Commune 1 is dominated by a gallery wall covered in sheets of floor-to-ceiling paper, titled Over the ovaries dive in the divine (2015). On closer examination what looks like an abstract textile resolves itself into repitive form. White female-bodied figures float in a tangle of limbs against a barely-visible black plane. Pairs of parts – breasts and buttocks and knees – are served up on plates to placid women who could be mirror images of one another. No-one seems very interested in eating. The end result belongs somewhere on the continuum between a Where’s Wally? cartoon and a Kama Sutra bas relief, playful and wanton in equal parts.
A constellation of smaller works are scattered across its surface. One canvas depicts bodies bound together by umbilical cords of hair while in another, fleshy curtains part to reveal a gaggle of blondes. A third at knee height entices the viewer down to its level, while a tiny fourth work meets you at eye level, asking for a more immediate engagement with the way each piece operates in relation to its busy surroundings. Although overwhelming at first, the tableau is visible from all angles of the gallery and makes for a dramatic counterweight to the many smaller, pithier pieces on display. And there are indeed many pieces – Steyn has been hugely productive and might perhaps have benefited from a sharper edit – that span a range of media. Most foreground the female body, and share an insistent horror vacui expressed as wildly overpopulated and decorative pictorial spaces.
There is an inverse relationship between horror vacui and value perception, Wikipedia tells me, and Wikipedia would know. Commercial designers, for example, favour minimalism. So do some artists, choosing the clean aesthetic of shop window displays because (I imagine) restraint is historically equated with education and expense. It says “I knew when to stop”. A great pleasure in Steyn’s show is that, while she may impose a degree of order in the form of pattern, she shows no restraint whatsoever in filling up space. These are works that glory in their busyness, raising a middle finger to austerity.
This is best captured in the large tapestry-inspired unstretched canvases, like Two my one desire (2015). Severed limbs arabesque against a red ground and threaten to engulf a central figure, who admires a pool of naked bathers with an air of faint boredom. I’d call the scene Boschian but for its decorative charm. There’s nothing grotesque here. If anything, the painting is tasteful, enlivened by a disorder that never quite devolves into chaos.
The title – and the titles of Steyn’s work really do run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, so I’m wary of deferring to them too much – provides a point of access. Two my one desire formulates a connection between hybrid self and plural desire or, if you like, plural self and hybrid desire. Desire, we infer, can split the heart lengthways or the self in two, and it does funny things to spelling. Perhaps, as Steyn’s mirror-women seem to suggest, the self is already multiple and scattered. The artist uses the word “moiety” to describe how her work functions visually, and it’s a good word. Moiety is a division at a molecular or kinship level; a part split from a whole. It’s the two that longs to be one, and that longing, at least for Steyn, has a kind of equilibrium. An archipelago of selves meet halfway, as in When we share a tongue (2015), or recede into infinity.
That said, there are moments in which the insularity of her vision lapses into solipsism, creating a world that only Steyn can access. It’s a world unable to seed itself, and hostile to visitors – a closed iconographic system governed by its own gravity and mass. But that isn’t a weakness, and this isn’t a criticism. Too often, I think, we use accusations of insularity to undermine artworks that orient toward the self, and especially if these are made by women. That’s practically a tradition in arts criticism, now I come to think about it. If it doesn’t follow the true north of ‘real life’ or shoot for some monumental critique, a work must be lacking something. And that’s obviously bullshit. Steyn is doing very effectively what Freud liked to call ‘disguising the daydream’, mastering egoism by bribing us with “the offer of a purely formal, that is aesthetic, pleasure in the presentation of [her] fantasies”. She sells us herself, albeit a self that can never be either singular or still.
This can be – and is – an imperfect process. It requires a polish that sometimes falls short of convincing in ‘The End is Located…’, when works become too esoteric to be read as purely personal or too wilfully messy to foreground the visual alone. To find a language that can frame an interior world is hard, and it is harder still to communicate it to someone else, or to extrapolate from it something worth communicating. Steyn has found the beginnings of that language here, or at the very least, begun to sketch out its syntax.