SMAC, Cape Town
06.08.2016 – 10.09.2016
In response to Marlene Steyn’s previous Cape Town exhibition at Commune 1 (2015), a reviewer noted the ‘dominant’ floor-to-ceiling print installed over the largest wall in the space. It acted as the environment, similar to wallpaper, while her other works were placed over and around it. Steyn’s current show, ‘Your Skin Is Not The Best Hiding Place’, demonstrates a similar attempt at occupying the white-cube gallery space at SMAC, though perhaps with further-reaching intent this time. On first entering the show one is met with three large strips of fabric, hung and bowing into the space. Steyn has populated these fabric strips with one of her distinctive drawings: something like a serene expression on the face of a character whose one leg is being devoured by a large, apathetic fish while the other leg meets a similar fate, but by snake. It’s seems to be doing something between wallpaper and picture-riddle. On first entering, the suggestion of domesticity is prominent: if this remains unclear by the drapery, there is also an abstract suspended window frame, shelves to put things on, a tasseled 50s kitchen light, a scattering of house plants, and some pitiable ‘human-furniture’.
As with her previous work, this exhibition is filled with portrayals of woman figures: teaching yoga in Nike-wear, metamorphosing with plant and animal and self, having a massage, and so on. Steyn has often described these images as explorations into her ‘many selves’. This show poses no difference and its more poignant moments tend to happen when she reaches a sweet-spot between inspired fantasy and catharsis. By relaying domesticity, Steyn seems to use it in order to construct a habitat for these tropes of the feminine. By this combination she sets up a scene, one already brimming with associations, which she can than work from, against or around.
In a recent interview, Steyn speaks of her relationship to art-making as her “way of filtering the world.” Steyn’s characters are forms of her imagination, her filter, no doubt; an imagination which is her most intimate self and friend, contemporary, yet nourished by her interest in art history.
Steyn’s painting on linen, Aura Hour with Cucumber, makes clear reference to the work of surrealist artist Frida Kahlo — the leafy, bulbous plants, the stilled expression of her face, a figure whose skin is peeled-to-reveal. The ‘armour’ straps on the character’s legs, holding a cucumber, are especially reminiscent of Kahlo’s La Columna Rota (The Broken Column), in which Kahlo paints herself in a white dress that is cut away in strips, looking as if it is bracing her split-open and hollow torso, revealing inside it a broken column. In Steyn’s Aura Hour the figure is similarly split-open, though the slit is not as singular: the body is riddled with holes; plants have started to grow from a few of them, their searching roots push through an arm, and she has decided to take the other holes for her own use: to hold a frying pan and egg or a cup from which she sips. These differences, along with the figure being in balanced movement, show Steyn’s effective departure from Kahlo’s expressions of vulnerability and into her own exploration of it.
Steyn quickly leaps from this frantic, multi-functioning and very domestic projection of the female role into a far more hysterical one, which is that one which we expect from clichés and/in contemporary media. In Steyn’s The Consequence of Waving, she restates Hokusai’s wave-form, from The Great Wave off Kanagawa, among which there are multiple iterations of the same, naked woman flailing in the waves. The painting is large, 182 x 221 cm, and the painted area does not reach the edge of the primed canvas.
Although Steyn is gifted with a well-lit imagination, her works on canvas lack the immersive qualities which they seem to want be approaching, especially in considering the formative references. The Surrealist painting she draws on, works by Kahlo or Dali , Hieronymus Bosch and Hokusai, in this instance, maintain the sort of imagery that ruptures its own fiction; it makes another version of some reality imaginable, if only for just a moment. Unlike Bosch’s imagery, which strives to bring the objects of his imagination into full and convincing view, Steyn’s approach tends more towards illustration. The result is that the work is a good vehicle for ideas, but it often forgoes that enchanting surreality. There are many good reasons to paint badly, manipulate the medium against itself, but the question is whether or not this work had to be ‘oil on canvas’ at all.
The figures portrayed by her sculpture offer a funny purity of imagination. The clay is sympathetic to her desire for the intuitive, and wears her urgency well. The selection of sculptures populates the room, and the figures make for uncomfortable confrontations in their overt sadness and determined ugliness; they hold in them an uncensored, and very contemporary human sadness and insecurity. And it is unnerving to play spectator to these manipulations of face and body, these fictions but of our own figure. The sculptures portray a mix-breed between a housewife cliché — submissive, uptight and depressed — and a grotesque, plasticine monster that knows nothing of sublimation. How to be a door, depicts a standing figure topped with a scratched and mangled face (that looks as if it knows it), a couple of boobs and two long legs culminating in swollen, monstrous hooves for feet. The figure is essentially marking out a large and empty space within itself, with only a leafy succulent plant hung strategically between the legs. It somehow still retains a certain mythical character, as many of her sculptures do. Perhaps it is the glazed skin in midnight blue, or the medieval figuration that knows to depict something like a mystical god or whimsical creature.
And how I pity these wretched women all bending down and backwards, making room within themselves, in wait, holding things. To me, these figures don’t seem to depend on their being understood to be rewarding; their charm is in their ability to confront and push up against you. The pictures I experience almost as a set of clues, eventually reducible to some end or understanding (the abundance of surrealist eggs, for instance, are by now too much a trope of Surrealism to be convincing as an act of surrealism). And one senses that once these symbols have been conveyed, the picture would have done its work. When Steyn’s intuition finds necessary expression in material, and not merely by symbolic language, I find the work to be stronger and more enigmatic. I am excited to see her work in the future.