Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas in conversation with New York based Israeli artist Tirtzah Bassel
Tirtzah, you have studied in Jerusalem and in Boston. Could you tell us a little bit about your artistic education? Which were the subjects and media you worked with during art school? What influence did your teachers have on your work and or artistic thinking?
Tirtzah Bassel: I first studied painting at the Jerusalem Studio School in Israel. The studio school was an exciting and intense place to be. We worked eight hours a day from the model, receiving critique once a week. There was a strong focus on working from observation and studying Old Master techniques and compositions. An important moment for me was a summer trip to Italy. Here for the first time I experienced the frescos of the early Renaissance painters - Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Massacio, Fra Angelico - in their original environments. I was struck by the way in which the paintings were both physically a part of the building, because when the fresco dries the paint bonds with the wall, as wekk as being pictorially an extension of the architecture. The building and the images derive meaning from each other. Beyond that, the experience of standing inside a chapel, surrounded by the frescoed walls felt fundamentally different than seeing a painting on the neutral white walls of a gallery or museum. Whereas the white cube positions the viewer as a critic or consumer, the chapel offered an experience that was immersive and contemplative. I wanted to create immersive environments for my paintings to inhabit.
How did the relocation to the U.S. influence your work? What was different there from Israel?
TB: In 2008 I moved to the United States to attend grad school at Boston University. One of the first things I noticed when I moved to New England was the fact that there were very different cultural norms regarding personal space and touch. Whereas in Israel it is common to stand very close to someone in a line at the bank or for people to hug and kiss each other when greeting, in Boston people needed a larger amount of personal space around them and there were very different codes of touch. I began to focus on physical relationships between people in public spaces, such as security pat downs at airports or hairdressers at barbershops. I was drawn to everyday situations, observing how the space itself dictated prescribed boundaries for interpersonal encounters.
It seems to us that for quite a long time you have been working primarily with duct tape, a heavy-duty tape that is very common in the U.S.. So it was a much more sculptural and installation-based approach...
TB: As an artist I am aware that any given medium has the power to literally shape how we see. My training as a painter was rooted in the traditional medium of oil painting. However at one point I felt very stuck in my painting practice. Around that time a colleague who was doing a studio visit challenged me to take an image I had created and to explore it in a medium I had never used before. I took some duct tape that was lying around the studio and started to experiment with it and was immediately attracted to its sculptural qualities. The tape also allowed me to work very quickly on a large scale and conceptually, the ephemeral quality of the tape spoke to the temporality of the spaces that I was depicting, such as airport security checks or border crossings. I felt that the duct tape had finally given me a way to make images that were inherently in dialog with the space that they lived in, much like the frescos I had seen in Italy as a student. This sent me on a path of making large-scale site-specific installations, often with social and political subject matter.
Did you suspend painting during this period?
TB: At the same time, I continued to paint in oil in my studio and over time I found that the duct tape began to influence my painting practice. First, the duct tape gave me an appetite for working on a large scale and my oil paintings began to shift from small-scale window-like panels to large-scale canvases that functioned more like immersive environments. The duct tape has also pushed me to work within a very restricted time frame and a limited palette of mostly bold colors, this also carried over to my painting practice. In turn, the oil paint lends itself to more a more complex and nuanced process, which is often messy but ultimately can generate new and surprising pictorial ideas. These have often fed into the imagery that I use in the site-specific works. So the various mediums are in a reciprocal and continuous relationship.
How would you describe the added value of working in different media?
TB: I have found that when I begin to experiment in a new medium it puts me in the place of a beginner. It forces me to re learn out how to do very basic things, but because of that I cannot default to my usual habits and this often generates a fresh approach in my work. For this reason I often branch out into simple medium such as crayons and markers, I’ve also explored ipad sketching apps. Initially I do not usually think of these experiments as part of my primary practice, however, similar to the duct tape, I often find that they have a big impact on my work. For example after spending some time making plein air drawings on the ipad, a friend pointed out that my large canvases in the studio had intensely bright backgrounds. I realized that I was subconsciously trying to recreate the back-lit effect of the ipad, and this, in turn, was generating new and surprising color relations in the paintings.
How do you find your motives? What are the preparatory steps before you start a painting?
TB: Often an idea for a painting will surface in the midst of a daily activity. I observe a mundane situation and suddenly have a sense of its strangeness. For example, »IKEA Bedroom« began with some quick sketches when I encountered a couple testing a mattress in the store. I was struck by the sharp contrast between the intimacy of their gesture and the public nature of the space. I focused on the specificity of their body language and the distinctive color palette of the furniture. Back in the studio these became the starting points for exploring possible compositions, I juxtaposed the sensual qualities of the oil painting with the generic nature of the store. The repetitive patterns of the furniture became both the formal building blocks for constructing the painting as well as a conceptual inquiry into the structures that shape every day.
In your recent paintings you focus on situations everybody is familiar with in their daily routine (lines in the supermarket, public waiting areas, airport security etc.). What is it that interests you in particular in this kind of situations?
TB: I believe that artists have the power to shift our perception of reality in profound ways. In this sense my practice is connected to a lineage of mark makers that have grounded their practice in observation of every day life. Artists such as Jean Siméon Chardin, Edgar Degas, Gwen John, Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Kerry James Marshall, Josephine Halvorson, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer and Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye to name a few, all use painting to bring our attention to aspects of daily life that may feel very familiar, while at the same time forcing us to reconsider them in fundamental ways.
The places you choose seem to be very exchangeable and they are lacking identity. Would you say that this is symptomatic of our times?
TB: I have been particularly drawn to observing the spaces that are most overlooked because of their ubiquitous nature. The French anthropologist Marc Augé uses the term ‘non-places’ to define spaces such as airports, highways, supermarkets and public transportation typical of a globalized world, describing them as “spaces that cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity.” These spaces that we spend an every-increasing proportion of our lives in are designed to feel like they could be anywhere and are removed from a sense of place. A Starbucks café is designed to feel exactly like all other Starbucks cafés regardless of the specific culture and history of the space that it is in. The result is a strange disconnect between our sensory experience and our sense of identity, and this can have a deep effect on our perception. Through the practice of drawing I relinquish the names of what I see and submerge myself in the strangeness of what I observe. This process of de familiarization reveals the startling beauty of unnamable colors and unexpected forms. It also exposes structures - stanchions that corral travelers in a security check line, cubicles that delineate boundaries between co-workers, selfie rituals encroaching on an intimate moment - the obvious but overlooked frameworks that makes up our existence. Through drawing and painting I affirm the indispensible role of bodies, the sense of sight and the sense of touch, in continuously delineating the contours of reality and making sense of our position within it.
Tirtzah, thank you very much for this interview.