Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs

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Manon Steyaert is one of the most exciting young artists on the London contemporary art scene. Fresh from a Fine Art Masters from Chelsea College of Arts, Steyaert is making work that viewers on Instagram can’t get enough of.

The artist has taken a desire to “separate” colours within painting to a new extreme: layering coloured silicone sheets over one another, wrapped around their canvas. This more “physical outcome” creates the three-dimensional separation that Steyaert was seeking. This layering of material also shows an influence from the artist’s initial interest in studying fashion.

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Manon Steyaert

Steyaert’s silicone pieces “float between the mediums of sculpture and painting”  and are so visually alluring you want to reach out and touch them. Maybe even give them a lick.

The brightly coloured, gleaming surfaces look viscous – taffy-like – but are deceptively thin.  The artist describes the fulfilling relationship she has with her works which partly comes from the power of her touch to alter the pieces’ structure.

In an exclusive interview for Art Plugged, Steyaert tells me about the difference between silicone and latex, the influence of Truitt, and the feeling of “selling bits of [your] soul” for financial success.

Q: First thing’s first, introduce yourself! What do you make, how do you work?

Manon Steyaert: I am 23 and a French/English, based in London, apart from in lockdown I decided it would be best to come back to my parents home up north, much better than being alone in my flat, however I did have to get creative on the studio front…my bedroom is messy! I recently graduated form Chelsea College of Arts with a Masters in Fine Art, waiting on the certificate to prove it however, I predominantly make “paintings” made out of bright layers of colour, making works that float between the mediums of sculpture and painting, wanting to change perceptions of viewers about their knowledge of the mediums, using bright colours to attract the eye and changing the surface to let their gaze dance upon the work.

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Manon Steyaert in the studio
Q: What would you say your artistic background is? How long have you been working?

Manon Steyaert: I was always (what felt like being) dragged to museums and large art museums as a kid, whether with my mum or grandparents, looking back on it now it was an amazing thing being given the chance from so young to exposed to the art world.

Funnily enough I wanted to study fashion at university, got into CSM for a diagnostic foundation and then didn’t get into fashion and feel back on Fine Art, so a lot of my interests and influences come from wanting to be in fashion. Went on to 3 more years for a Undergrad at CSM as well in Fine Art and really experimented with a lot of mediums with painting, it is true when tutors say “you don’t even know your own practice yet”, so by the end I was still wanting more and went on to Chelsea College of Arts for a Masters, that’s where things got pretty interesting.

Q: How did your relationship with silicone begin? 

Manon Steyaert: It ultimately started from a problem, a big problem…

I was wanting to focus on the word “Separation” and the layers that I tried to separate layers of colour on may paintings, wanting a more of a physical outcome, if that makes sense. I had used latex to do this in the past and decided to use the latex itself as the layer, by adding ink I created bright layers that just jumped out of the canvas even if I was stretching it over painting canvas.

I naively didn’t really think about the shelf life (something not regularly covered at uni) and sold a few to then hear that the latex either snapped or became dull after certain exposure, this instigated my search to a material that I could still manipulate myself and create that would increase shelf life of my works, silicone was the answer. Still investigating this medium, but that’s why I love it, its still unpredictable and can be changed with my touch, creating a really interesting dynamic between me and my work, like a play fight of back and forth!

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Pastel Dreams III
Q: Is tactility an important part of your work?

Manon Steyaert: Massively! I think over this period of lockdown and artist support pledge I have fooled many people into thinking the works are completely solid, however, they are actually rather delicate and have ripped… So its an interesting material in terms of being the devil of plastic and never going away but still fragile in its handling.

I also think tactility draws in a viewer, and that’s what I want, I want viewers to question their own thoughts about my work, thinking one thought and being pleasantly surprised to see that it is completely something else. I think tactility engages the viewer to move, to investigate and consider themselves with the work and their effect on the work in the space.

Q: What is your favourite piece you’ve created? 

Manon Steyaert: Great question, I think I would have to pick between two, first one being “Silicone Pastel Dreams II” and “Totems I”, both very different pieces but I feel they both show my investigation in both the mediums of sculpture and painting.

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Silicone Pastel Dreams II

I mean I should be saying that I love everything that I make, but no, “Totems I” came out of me rolling up many works that I didn’t like anymore but could not bring myself to chuck out, I wanted this piece to show some of the inevitable end of some works, rolled up in the corner of the studio. It ended up being one of my favourite pieces due to its surface, having all elements of painting but completely rejecting the traditional format.

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Totems I
Q: Who are your biggest inspirations?

Manon Steyaert: I would have to say Anne Truitt and Dan Graham, both had a lot of influence in my work throughout university and still now, Truitt more so now than Graham. Dan Graham really pushed me to think about perception and the behaviour of viewers, in their interaction with the work, themselves and the space. Wanting to really divulge into viewers thoughts about my work and how I could either effect their view or their thoughts which naturally began teaching me as to my own perceptions and not being able to really control any.

Truitt not only influenced me in her work and her rejection into labelling her works into specific boxes, I recently finished her book “The Daybook”, really opened my eyes to the relationship between artist and their work and life in general how to juggle it all, I am still young and still have a lot to learn in this but so far somewhat liking the journey. Her large totem sculptures would most likely be the work I would want to see the most in person, wanting to feel their effect on me, not just because of size but the inexplicable sense of familiarity.

I recently read “Limbo” by Dan Fox which I thought quite interesting, its out there in terms of subjects but I somewhat felt a relation between my work and what he was saying. It made me think about the aspect of limbo and how my work is being drawn more and more into the middle of two mediums and fighting the sense of belonging (well I think so anyway).

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Draped Silicone 4
Q: What’s next for you? 

Manon Steyaert: I was shortlisted for the backroom gallery open call with Copeland Parks and was due to have the exhibition in June but have pushed it back to December, super excited to be organising my own solo show, is that vain to say? But think it will give the opportunity of really expanding my works into the space, something I feel I rarely get to do and first experimented with in my MA degree show at Chelsea.

I am also going to Portugal for a month in August to take part in the artist residency at PADA, quite nervous but really looking forward to it, having (socially distanced) discussions with other artists and diving into new ways of making work, pushing myself out of my comfort zone not only by being there but opening my work to critique again, exploring new materials and hangings.

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Misbehaving Surfaces
Q: How do you strike the balance between being an artist and being your own salesperson? 

Manon Steyaert: Its kind of weird I have to say, I used to work a lot with The Who Gallery where Makesa Kaizen the founder did most of this type of selling of my works and then decided to go in my own direction, therefore doing this myself.

I kind of love it, in the satisfaction of communicating something interesting enough over to another person for them wanting to buy the work, but I also feel like it has taken over my work a little. Everyone has to make a living, but I have felt pushed to produce at times, like I was selling bits of my soul at the same time, but I think this is just a balancing act that every artist has to learn when they aren’t with a gallery and shouldn’t always depend on a gallery to be able to sell. Those connections with people (buyers) are integral, truly important in continuing a career, I think.

Manon Steyaert In Conversation With Verity Babbs
Wrapped Promises II
Q: Social Media as a tool for artists – pro or anti? 

Interesting one, I’m both. Great exposure and accessibility for young emerging artists like myself but again there is such a thing as too much, there are so many artists on social media, especially on Instagram that standing out becomes its own type of art.

Q: What are you angry about right now? 

Manon Steyaert: That emerging artists are sometimes not given the fair chance by galleries, like its an impenetrable bubble, there are some young galleries that are doing amazing in this between A Room Upstairs Gallery where I had a solo show as their first artist and Guts Gallery as well, there are many more that I could list too, but it’s a great change.

We all need to do better and be kinder to one another, educate, share and donate where and when we can.

©2020 Manon Steyaert