HOW CANNIBALS CUDDLE
8 - 31 August 2014
In a visual menagerie worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, weird and wonderful creatures span the worlds of the human and non-human. These figures are at times medieval in nature, vanitas paintings of humans with protruding ribs and skeletal forms, familiar 14th century religious icons or the margins of fantastical illuminated manuscripts. At other times they are tribal, lunar goddesses and luscious plant life in a world in which limbs and hair become intertwined and braided together in a never ending cycle, breeding new life and new beginnings, as well as endings. How Cannibals Cuddle, running from 8 – 31 August at The Art Cabin, presents new works by South African artist Marlene Steyn, who presents us with a world in which everything is in a constant incarnation and reincarnation.
For Steyn, drawing is a natural extension of her imagination, which allows her to both process and view the world around her, drawing on a variety of sketchbooks she carries with her, or even, in their absence, on her skin. “Drawing allows me to momentarily withdraw from the world to react to my surroundings,” she says. “This usually manifests in my drawings of characters responding to fantastical scenarios.” These characters inhabit an alternate universe and are an amalgamation of various influences, from George Bataille’s Visions of Excess to Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett. Steyn combines what-if games, daydreaming, classical mythology, psychoanalysis theories, movie moments, and, sometimes, “something somebody said while they were slurping chicken soup,” explains Steyn. “I am interested in the points where histories, contemporary culture, psychology and imagination become entangled.”
Steyn’s recent time at the Royal College of Art has further cemented her interest in the complex historical discourse surrounding current artistic practices, a discourse, she says, which contemporary painting “carries with a hunched back”. She attempts to reference and unsettle this historical weight inscribed onto the canvas, borrowing from the visual languages and traits from a variety of different cultures. The aesthetics of the mysterious 15th century Voynich Manuscript (as yet untranslatable) collide with the Tibetan Book of the Dead and even Luigi Serafini’s 1981 imaginary Codex Seraphinianus (also written in an unintelligible alphabet). “I am drawn to these texts, as well as ancient tapestries (and magic carpets) because of their ability to unsettle the notion of a linear and coherent narrative from a Western perspective, be it visual or written,” she says. “I would rather enter a labyrinth with a few rabbit holes and wandering paths, and discover hybrid creatures in dark corners, than walk a straight line towards a happy-ever-after-horizon-line.”
At the heart of Steyn’s work is a sense of fluidity – lines and borders constantly flow, counter flow and become entangled, akin to TS Eliot’s “In my beginning is my end/In my end is my beginning.” Figures spawn other figures, like buds growing from trees – knees, limbs and arms are uncapped to reveal new lives springing forth. Here, a figure shares a mouth with another figure, whose beard is braided into yet another’s nose hair, a strange biological and visceral endless cycle of repair and renewal. “I attempt to construct hermaphroditic and compressed visual moieties that can be connected to the notion of the cosmic body,” she says. “Clusters of figures are (dis)jointed by orifices and body hair braids; interwoven to the extent that it touches on tapestry. A disembodied and partial body is proposed; that is not apart but a part of; interwoven in the interplay of history, mythologies, narratives, invention and psychology. A subject who is continuously braided with doubles of herself; an ecco homo as an echoed homo sapiens.”
The presence of the orifice plays an important role in Steyn’s painting and drawing work, as both a conceptual and visual thread throughout her practice. Simultaneously encapsulating a hole (in the ‘whole’) and a conduit (through which migration can occur), it opens up a multitude of possibilities in the artist’s re-imagining of a subject. “Orifices are located in-between an inside and outside where a subject can leak out or over flow,” she explains. “I often depict subjects plugged into other subjects. The interlinking and penetration of orifice allows me to further render a subject who is in excess of herself (linked to doubles, forests, mermaid fins and sometimes furniture) and less than herself (through self-eating, drooling and disappearing).
Working between drawing and painting, Steyn’s recent work has seen the two forms bleed into each other to produce a whole new medium. “There is so much that gets lost when a drawing becomes a painting and vice versa,” she says. “For a while it was the cause of many sighs, but lately I have become intrigued by the different modes of figuration and the limits of visual translation, which are also limitless.” In doing so, she has combined the quick-drawn, unrefined quality of many of her drawings with the visual density of her paintings, incorporating both languages onto one surface. “I am excited by the dialogue and migration of the ‘quick drawn doodle’ towards a more refined painted area,” she says. “Working in these different modes helps me to portray a subject with many facets that do not always correspond with each other.”