2020 Koen Leemans – Playing at being Human

The display of Maen Florin’s sculptures in Mechelen covers all the facets of her work in a comprehensive exhibition in three sites, each with its own character. While it doesn’t pretend to be a retrospective, it offers a balanced and sophisticated dialogue that highlights the exceptional consistency of her work.

In De Garage, where the artist shows work that is entirely new, she goes a step further than she has done hitherto. With the addition of colours, walls and specially designed plinths Maen Florin takes responsibility for the architecture of the exhibition. Each of the sculptures has a distinct place and takes up a position vis-a-vis the other works in the space. This means that she allows the evocative power of the surroundings to play a role in the viewer’s experience of her sculptures. As in the Museum Hof van Busleyden and the Sint-Janskerk, the viewing of the art works is intensified by their deliberately chosen sites and the specific, unifying context. Viewing these works thus becomes something deeper and more focused.

The artist’s departure point in designing her sculptures is always her intuition, her inner experiences and feelings, while at the same time, her work is full of references to art history and the tradition of sculpture. Her works combine elements of a number of different narratives and a variety of cultures; in this way she searches for a universal language. By fusing identities, she creates archetypes in which she achieves a sort of essentiality that make her sculptures immediately recognizable.

Maen Florin seduces her viewers while at the same time offering them a mirror. In her search for a means of translating powerful emotions, she unites polar opposites such as power and impotence, love and suffering, strength and frailty in a single image. Her figures attempt to make contact with the world while remaining enclosed in their own bubbles, isolated from the others. The impossibility – or otherwise – of communication runs like a thread through Maen Florin’s entire oeuvre. We are constantly communicating with each other and yet there is so much interference, misunderstanding and incomprehension. How we interact with the others, coming from a wide range of backgrounds and with different expectations, seems more important than ever in a time when people are increasingly introverted.

Maen Florin’s sculptures appeal to the viewer to reflect on the place of the individual in a changing society. The series of heads for instance with the title Blue and Blind resonate with the sense of loneliness and alienation that is increasingly the hallmark of our society. By mixing the moulds of different heads, she gives the new heads a distorted and aggrieved look. Melancholy and sorrow lie concealed behind their closed eyes (Blue). Can or will they not see (Blind)? Big Boy, a series of larger heads, is symptomatic of the fixation of our achievement-oriented society on being better, harder, faster, stronger. Be a big boy. Don’t be a weakling, stay strong and keep going on. Anyone who can’t maintain the pace, is finished. It sums up the spirit of our age perfectly.

Despite the highly-charged, serious character of her work, there is also room in it for more playful elements. For instance, in her most recent group of sculptures, The Performer, we come across indirect allusions to the Les Enfants du Paradis, the1945 film by Marcel Carné. Maen Florin saw this French classic years ago and the marvellous world it evokes has always stayed with her. The film is about love and melancholy, pickpockets and broken hearts in the wings and dressing rooms of a people’s theatre in the mid-nineteenth century. Besides the hard outside world of reality is the parallel one of the theatre that is filled with shadowy lives, dreams and the sweet illusion of the imagination.

 “What is the world if not a great stage, in which everyone performs in the mask of another and acts out his adopted role, until the great director removes him from the stage.” This well-known quotation from Erasmus’s Praise of Folly alsoinspired Maen Florin in making her sculptures. With her standing sculptures, the artist presents herself as the director who plays on the feelings of her public by way of imaginary, dreamlike characters.

At first glance, these figures remind one of characters from the Commedia dell’Arte repertoire.  Their appearance is in all respects more outspoken and colourful than the discreet, understated images that have been such a feature of the artist’s work in the recent past. Like her heads, the sculptures are mainly composed of glazed ceramics. Maen Florin’s use of enamel painting gives these sculptures a highly unusual expressivity. They look as though they have a second skin or a tattoo.

By delicate additions of some textiles, a tuft of hair or a twig – as in a collage – the artist picks up the thread of her earlier work once again. These subtle combinations mean that the figures are more than just performers. They become magicians or shamans. They are wizards. They act out their own humanity. Playing at being Human.

Concentrated and introverted, with their arms folded, they search from their own personal positions for a connection with each other. Separate and together, they also seem to provoke the viewer to seek reflection and solidarity. In this way, Florin brings us a positive view of reality without ever being teacherly or moralizing, thus offering us brief consolation for our common human drama that is the same in every age. Maen Florin’s sculptures touch on the core of what good art is capable of: they stir up sensory and fundamental emotions, challenging us to look at ourselves and at the world we are a part of. In doing so, they give meaning to how we shape our lives and times.

Koen Leemans