MARLENE STEYN: painter, sculptor of words & clay, holder of negative space.

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST  |  ARTIST WRITE-UP  |  CLAY  FORM(E)S

marlene steyn

A sculptural freefall — in clay, words, and space.

Marlene Steyn is a painter, a sculptor of words and clay, and a holder of negative space. She completed her MA in painting at the Royal College of Art in London in 2014, and is represented by SMAC Gallery and Lychee One. She has exhibited prolifically since 2014. 

 

Steyn is also a mother, a resister-of-labels, and a real-life mermaid of the sea of unconscious processes. Catching the dream as it falls into the real — catching the figures of the painting as they fall into clay, and catching herself by surprise, over and over — Steyn facilitates a paradoxical release by grasping. In a very ‘real’ holding of the clay, an expansive imaginative landscape is articulated in the gaps — in the spaces between fingerprints, and between objects in a room. 

 

Following a rich and fluid conversation with the artist, I have chosen to write specifically about her use of clay in relation to painting, in relation to words, and as a holder of negative space.

 

Marlene Steyn is a painter, a sculptor of words and clay, and a holder of negative space. She completed her MA in painting at the Royal College of Art in London in 2014, and is represented by SMAC Gallery and Lychee One. She has exhibited prolifically since 2014. 

Steyn is also a mother, a resister-of-labels, and a real-life mermaid of the sea of unconscious processes. Catching the dream as it falls into the real — catching the figures of the painting as they fall into clay, and catching herself by surprise, over and over — Steyn facilitates a paradoxical release by grasping. In a very ‘real’ holding of the clay, an expansive imaginative landscape is articulated in the gaps — in the spaces between fingerprints, and between objects in a room. 

Following a rich and fluid conversation with the artist, I have chosen to write specifically about her use of clay in relation to painting, in relation to words, and as a holder of negative space.

BY SOPHIE COPE

marlene steyn

Marlene Steyn | ‘Womanipulator’ | 2019 | Glazed Ceramic

A flight between painting and clay

In addition to being a painter, Steyn is a self-taught ceramicist, and she prefers to just talk about it as ‘sculpting with clay.’ It keeps it lighter, with less of an obligation to be anything in particular. The great joy of it is that there is nothing to prove. Her sculptures can be used to punctuate the space like question-marks, and nobody has to have the right answer. Displayed in conversation with her paintings, it is as if the clay forms (often figures) fell from the painted landscapes a few minutes ago, and were caught mid-fall in the hands of the artist. The finger-marks from catching them out of the air are still present. It feels it possible that they might fly or fall again soon. The air around them anticipates this. 

A sculpting of words

The striking third medium of Steyn’s practice is her use of words— almost as little malleable objects of their own. Each of her titles uses phonetic puns and word-play in a way that reinvents the sounds of the words — using ‘the known’ to describe something entirely reimagined. Among many others, the title of her 2019 solo show at SMAC in Cape Town ‘deep she diver her,’ articulates a double-meaning deep dive into the sea of the ‘unthought known,’ both visually and linguistically. The artist frames her imaginative use of words in relation to being Afrikaans-speaking, which has allowed her to listen to the sounds of the English words as just sounds, before anything else. Just malleable building-blocks for meaning, never frozen in place, with endless possibilities for reinvention. Like this, Steyn’s radiant irreverence for the English language is perhaps sculptural, — perhaps echoing her use of clay. When there is no need to identify very rigidly or personally with the medium, it seems one is more likely to take flight.

marlene steyn

Marlene Steyn | ‘How to arch’ | 2019 | Glazed ceramic

A holding of negative space 

Steyn’s sculptural works are of course three dimensional, and they fill space in a room, and they exist in dialogue with her paintings. But what they also do, perhaps more than anything else, is articulate the gaps. The artist’s use of big ‘negative’ space — holes, archways, absences — allows the sculptural forms to almost act as punctuation marks. They become the articles and interstices for the things between us that we know about, but can’t say or see. In a multitude of determinedly wide-open bodies, there is also the undeniable presence of a subverted (or liberated?) feminine archetype. The world is full of the body, and the body is full of the world. And it is more than that too. Steyn’s holding of negative space suggests a radical willingness to not know. To leave it open, to be caught by surprise, to come and go at will. Perhaps the bravest and most generous interpretation of the artist’s work is to leave the gap open, and to dare to not know too. 

In my conversation with Marlene Steyn, I was repeatedly reminded of songs and phrases by inter-disciplinary artist Laurie Anderson. But more than anything, in relation to Steyn’s dives and long flights and falls, I have been thinking about Anderson’s Freefall from 1994:

You’re out on the ocean 

and you get pulled down

freefall

to the bottom

like when you’re downing 

or falling asleep

you get turned around

and when you think you’re swimming

to the surface

you’re swimming 

straight down

down to the bottom

all the way to the bottom

[…] 

I got your letter

I couldn’t read it

it was a cryptogram

did it say take me with you

or take me as I am?

We’re going down to the bottom

all the way to the bottom

we get turned around —

there is another world 

spinning 

inside of this one

 

I remember where I came 

there were tropical breezes 

and a wide open sea

I remember my childhood

I remember being free

 

we’re going down to the bottom

all the way to the bottom

we get turned around 

 

there is another world 

inside of this one

rapture of the deep.

– Laurie Anderson (Freefall, 1994)

You’re out on the ocean 

and you get pulled down

freefall

to the bottom

like when you’re downing 

or falling asleep

you get turned around

and when you think you’re swimming

to the surface

you’re swimming 

straight down

down to the bottom

all the way to the bottom

 

[…] 

 

I got your letter

I couldn’t read it

it was a cryptogram

did it say take me with you

or take me as I am?

 

 

We’re going down to the bottom

all the way to the bottom

we get turned around —

 

 

there is another world 

spinning 

inside of this one

 

 

I remember where I came 

there were tropical breezes 

and a wide open sea

I remember my childhood

I remember being free

 

 

we’re going down to the bottom

all the way to the bottom

we get turned around 

 

 

there is another world 

inside of this one

rapture of the deep.

 

 

– Laurie Anderson (Freefall, 1994)

marlene steyn

Marlene Steyn | ‘The Scream’ (Echo-Oh’s) | 2016 | Glazed ceramic

Marlene-Steyn

Marlene Steyn | ‘Unbuttoning my belly’ (Installation View) | 2019 | Glazed ceramic

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