On the eve of her second solo exhibition, French artist and recent Chelsea College of Fine Art MA graduate Manon Steyaert sat down with art historian, writer and curator Hector Campbell to discuss her artistic evolution throughout her years at art school, her exploration, rejection and deconstruction of traditional painting and traditional means of presentation, as well as the works she’ll be showing in ‘Misbehaving Surfaces’, which opens at The WHO Gallery in East London on 25 September, curated by Makesa Kaizen.
Hector Campbell : During both your Foundation year and early stages of your BA at Central Saint Martins you worked in photography and collage, before arriving at painting as your chosen medium specifically acrylic paint combined with some nascent uses with liquid latex. How did this backing in photography and collage inform your early paintings, and does it continue to influence your work?
Manon Steyaert : I think I was predominantly interested in how I could use photography to create “paintings”. By overlapping images of colour, or having a long and slow exposure to capture movements of colour, I could create curiosity within the viewer as to whether it was a painting or a photograph. I was also drawn to the glass within the frame of a photograph and how that would distract me from seeing the image enclosed, instead seeing reflections that obstructed my view but also seeing my own reflection made me question how I see myself in comparison to the works.
This still influences how I work and how I want to separate layers within my practice, seeing the physical layers rather than only those within the painting – latex was a material that allowed me to physically rip off layers, therefore reflecting me more physically in the making process.
H.C : Shortly after focussing on painting, you began to examine the importance of a painting’s surface, painting directly onto transparent sheets, mirrors and, having progressed to the use of oil paint, the backs of stretched canvases. What triggered this initial questioning of the place and purpose of the surface, and why does it remain such an important part of your practice?
M.S : After moving on from photography I started to really analyse the canvas and its surface, how I was using abstract painting gestures to “cover” it in a way, and I wasn’t satisfied with it at all. Like I mentioned above how the reflection of a framed photo really caught my attention, I also wanted to catch the viewer’s eye within my paintings, which is why I moved on to painting on surfaces such as mirrors and see-through acrylic. By seeing through the paint, seeing themselves reflected within work, or creating a moving action around the canvas due to painting on both sides, I wanted to make the viewer realise or question their position in relation to the works.
As I was making my own canvases I was also very much seeing all the elements of the canvas, my little errors in cutting the fabric to size or chips in the wood, which instigating me investigating its surface.
H.C : During the final year of your BA, you advanced this line of enquiry further by exposing the internal structure of your paintings, leaving the frame either fully or partially visible, the canvas not completely stretched. Did you see that as a natural culmination of your undergraduate study? How would you reflect upon your artistic development over those three years?
M.S : Yes I do believe it was a culmination of my whole three years, leaving parts of the stretcher uncovered by canvas allowed me to bring that element of painting which is normally unseen to the forefront, showing the importance of the physical structure.
My undergraduate study was a really interesting time in my practice, there was definitely development throughout. I got more curious and more confident with my work, explored many variations in my practice and many different techniques to find what I felt was best for me and my work. I am naturally intrigued by the foundations of things, seeing how they tick, so with painting the frame and the action of wrapping, covering and stretching canvas on it was very important to me.
H.C : After completing your BA at Central St Martins you undertook an MA at Chelsea College of Art. There both the ‘Canvas Separation’ and ‘Colour Separation’ series began, as you manipulated layers of rolled canvas, as well as employed non-traditional painting materials such as latex, cellophane and iridescent plastic, to deconstruct and investigate the layering of colour and it’s possibilities. Was it an obvious decision for you to pursue a programme of postgraduate study? And could you explain a little how those two series of works developed during your time at Chelsea?
M.S : I think it was essential for me to go straight into a postgraduate course, as my practice was only just beginning to make sense to me, and I was nearer to narrowing down what I was really investigating. I always had so many ideas and wanted to do it all without any real consideration as to why it was important and influential in my work. Especially in London, such a fast-paced city, I felt like a postgraduate course was important as my practice was just starting to “kick-off”, or really progress. The course at Chelsea is no joke, and I definitely had the dedication to take it on at that time, I don’t know whether I would have been able to carry on at the same level without doing an MA.
The two series that I focused on at Chelsea were quite important turning points for my practice. I was very influenced by the non-traditional aspect of Chelsea, the slight chaos and fast pace of it, combined with being surrounded by artists with such varied practices. I learnt a lot from my friends and peers about how they see both their own practices and also mine. I was torn as to whether to just stick with oil paint on canvas or to branch out and discover other ways through which to represent the idea of painting. I was still interested in the idea of wrapping or covering the frame, and I wanted to extend that to right onto the surface so it becomes the direct subject rather than just another step to making the painting.
I think the use of latex came from wanting more tension whilst stretching across the canvas, I made sure to use bright colours so there wouldn’t be too many references to human skin as latex can be quite similar. Latex allowed me to separate layers of colour on the canvas and create an odd surface to gaze upon.
H.C : Visitors to your MA degree show early this year finally saw your work completely brake free from the confines of the stretcher frame and into the realms of sculpture and installation, as rolled canvases leant against the walls and pillars or propped each other up to become freestanding elements. Do you still consider those works to be paintings? Or have you embraced the mediums of sculpture and installation?
M.S : I think I considered my whole MA degree installation as a painting, as if my whole practice has just spilt out off the canvas. As it was my first ever installation without using a real wooden stretcher, I embraced the space and the architecture to create the parameters of a canvas frame. I let my rolled paintings stand on their own but in an awkward way, and wrapped works around pillars to create tension within the space I didn’t want any of it to be perfect as I didn’t want to simply decorate the space, but to elevate and use it.
I didn’t see those works as sculptures alone as it was more a mixture between mediums, like painterly sculptures or sculptural paintings, an intertwining of mediums that don’t really fall into just one.
I certainly wanted to manipulate materials against their normal desired function, for example twisting iridescent plastic into a rope or using a rolled canvas as a sort of lever to tighten the installation. I really went out of my comfort zone to create that work and am really excited to venture in that direction again.
H.C : Alongside the questioning of the surface with your practice, you also experiment with the traditional methods and means of display, exhibiting works hung from the ceiling, leant against walls, or those made moveable and interactive through the addition of hinges or wheels. What interested you about these possibilities of presentation? And what do you feel these experimental means of exhibiting add to the paintings themselves?
M.S : I have always been bored with the traditional and I felt like nothing made me curious about just hanging a painting on the wall. My works and my ideas have rejected that since the beginning, and that pushed me to experiment with wheels and pulley systems. I quickly realized the connotations that came with both and how I was only halfway to making the paintings work in the space. I think at the time it was interested in creating viewpoints for the viewers, organizing a walkthrough and hanging paintings in a specific way for you to see different combinations of colour, and that something I did at my previous solo exhibition with The WHO Gallery.
I think for me it was a means to elevate the work when I knew that the technique maybe wasn’t there in the subject matter, or I thought they weren’t interesting enough on their own. I was really interested in my relationship with the work, their size enabled me to not have to have any help, so I felt close to the work and wanted people to feel the same way when looking at it. I think the presentation that allowed the viewer to see more than just the front of the painting led to that a bit more.
H.C : Finally, could you give us an insight into how your practice has developed since completed your MA at Chelsea? How are you navigating the transition from art school to life as a practising artist? And what can we expect to see at your upcoming solo show ‘Misbehaving Surfaces’ at The WHO Gallery?
M.S : Well, what’s really interesting about my course is that I am still on it technically, but the last stretch is about being in the art world and trying to create a sustainable practice whilst seeing tutors every other week and being marked on it at the end.Again, not that traditional. I feel like even though I am still on the course I am very much leading what is starting to be a real practice. London’s tough, it’s full of great artists and so it’s hard to get up and try and stand out without compromising the work.
I am quite an independent person, so I don’t think the transition will be very scary, I mean money is going to be tough but it will be worth it. It will be interesting to see how to carry on a practice when you’re not expected to write about it in essays for university, how to keep analyzing and critiquing it by yourself.
For this show, you can expect the work to be slightly in your face with the colours and the surfaces, I’ve made them in a way that none of the surfaces are perfect, making them each unique. As The WHO Gallery exists within a commercial space, a showroom for the brand J.Lindeberg, I adapted a little to reinstate my installation work back onto the canvas frame, I don’t see it as a negative or constricting to the work. The surfaces rely on the frame to make it what they are and I like the tension within some of the works, where there is almost a rejection between the materials and painting, creating a playful relationship between the mediums used, not taking each one too seriously.