Painting Needs Complexity: A Conversation With Tirtzah Bassel

By Debbi Kenote and Til Will

Tirtzah Bassel, ‘Bowling Green’, 2017, oil on canvas, 36 x 108 in. Image courtesy of Slag Gallery and the Artist

We were lucky to snag a few words with Brooklyn Based artist Tirtzah Bassel at Volta NY. She has four large works on display with Slag Gallery in booth C22, on view through Sunday. Last year, Bassel participated in the exhibition Homeland Security hosted by the For-Site Foundation

Listen to the full interview here:


TILL WILL: This is Open House, we are here at Volta New York, Pier 90. We’re here with Tirtzah Bassel and we are sitting in the booth looking at some big paintings. Do you want to tell us a little more about Tirtzah, Debbi?

DEBBI KENOTE: Yea. Tirtzah Bassel is an Israeli artist based in New York City. Her drawings, paintings and site-specific installations explore the relationships between power and space and the permeable borders between public and private domains. We are sitting here looking at the large paintings around us. There’s one to the right of us that has some pinks and blues, there’s a crowd that’s apparent, a lot of brush strokes, kind of pastely with some cobalt mixed in, and there’s some other works around us. Do you want to follow up on that [Til]?

TW: Yea, they’re thick paintings. They’re luscious I would say. We’ve got this interesting effect going on with the neon border on the edges of the painting. So let’s get into then with Tirtzah… So Tirtzah do you want to tell us a little about your upbringing and how you got started making art?

TIRTZAH BASSEL: Sure. Have to give me a second…my upbringing? 

TW: Yea, just like where you’re from, how you started making…

TB: Sure. I grew up in Jerusalem. When I was growing up I was surrounded by a lot of creative people, I have a very creative family, but I didn’t know any artists. So I didn’t really think that being an artist was an option, or something you could do as an adult, unless you were crazy. So I was actually on track to become a social worker. Which is interesting in that I took a very cool course in sociology that kind of opened my mind to looking at everyday social situations and seeing the political underpinnings. But, then, I randomly took an art class, like a life drawing class, in the evenings, and the first time I took this class I was like oh yea, this is what I want to do. It took a little while, to transition out of social work school and to study painting and drawing, but once I started I never turned back. 

TW: So you said ‘social work school,’ is that something in Jerusalem… 

TB: Sure yea so in Jerusalem the university system is more European in that when you apply for a degree, you apply to a specific track. So I was in undergrad here but it’s on a social work track, to clarify. 

Tirtzah Bassel, ‘Screen’, 2017, Acrylic and oil on canvas, diptych, 12 x 18 in each. Image courtesy of Slag Gallery and the artist.

DK: And when you went further into the arts, you studied painting, correct?

TB: Correct. So I started my studies as I mentioned at the Jerusalem Studio School, which has a very traditional method where you basically just paint in the studio from life, six days a week, eight hours a day. One day a week you get a crit, and the rest of the time you’re kind of on your own and with your peers. Just trying to figure it out. So that’s the basis, it’s really just looking and trying to get that technique down. And then, in the summers we traveled to the US and to Europe, and there was a lot of time spent copying old master paintings. So that for me was my very personal introduction to art history. It was really through making, not just talking about, and then time spent in Europe, in Italy specifically, where I started off looking at Caravaggio and some of the Renaissance painters, but I kept going back. I kept being curious to go further and further back, so I kind of got to the early Renaissance, the frescos, that are on the walls of the churches, right, like Assisi, Piero della Francesca, and Masaccio, and Fra Angelico, and that blew my mind, because it was the first time I encountered paintings not in a white gallery or museum setting, but where they’re literally, physically, and also visually part of the architecture. You’re standing and looking at these paintings and the fresco is literally part of the wall, it drys into that wall, and it also continues the space of the church, right, and then of course, conceptually it is a part of what the church is about. So that connection between the image and the space and the architecture really had a strong impact on me. It took really many years, maybe ten years, until I started to do site-specific installations where I was creating images with duct tape on the walls of a space, but I think the seeds were planted there. 

DK: That actually leads into my next question. Which was how did you start doing the duct tape work? I know I’ve read a little bit about how you were interpreting people in the spaces, so I’m curious to hear more about that. 

TB: Sure. So it started…you’re artists so you’re kind of are around artists…

TW: Kind of. (laughter)

TB: So it’s really about the cross-pollination when artists hang out with artists. So the good friend of mine, the artist Naomi Safran-Hon, was over at my studio when we were kind of going back and forth I was pretty stuck in my painting. I was looking at airports and airport security, but the paintings were really muddy and not working. And she challenged me to take an image that I had made and re-create it in a medium I had never used before. So I was kind of looking around, you know, I’ve tried a lot of traditional mediums but I had some tape in my studio, so I made some sketches with the tape and just thought, wow, this is amazing, it’s a collage material that you don’t have to go back and glue later. It’s very painterly and sculptural, and I had a show scheduled a couple months later and I thought I’ll just try it on the wall and see what happens, and that was the beginning. 

DK: Yea it does seem you use it very painterly, I noticed the way the tape meets around the figure, it really builds up, in the same way you would build up the texture behind a figure in a painting. 

TB: Sure. I think about it as painting. And that’s the language that I’m speaking, the visual language. What the tape enables me to do is to work site-specifically. So the last show I did, on the West Coast in San Francisco, with the For-Site Foundation, was at a former military base. The piece that I created was actually in the Nike administration building, as in, the Nike nuclear missile. Which is now mostly closed to the public, but through this group show it was open to the public. So to bring images of national airport security into that space, again, it creates this whole other layer where you have the image but it’s also speaking with the building, with the architecture.

TW: So this is a group show, the artists were they referencing similar issues, or referencing the nuclear missile? What was the concept for the show?

TB: Sure. So it’s a great show, I’ll send you more info on it. The title of the show was Homeland Security, and there were 18 national and international artists who were invited. Adjacent to my piece was Michele Pred’s piece, which was an installation of objects that had been confiscated by TSA. Do Ho Suh had a piece that is made out of dog tags but creates this beautiful armor…

TW: Oh yea I’ve seen that piece at the Seattle Art Museum before.

TB: Bill Viola had his Martyr series, so yea this was kind of tackling what does national security or homeland security mean at this moment and time. It was evoking this discussion. 

DK: Could you tell us a little more about your interest in that? I know you talked about power and space and how those relate.

TB: Sure. In a way it started from a kind of simple or mundane encounter that I had on a trip. I was in an international airport and I was randomly selected four times for a pat down.

DK: Hmm. Randomly. 

TW: Yea, randomly, wow. 

Tirtzah Bassel, ‘Pilgrimage’, 2017, oil on canvas, 84 x 120 in. Image courtesy of Slag Gallery and the artist.

TB: Which is actually unusual for me, I know some people experience it often, but I was really struck by it. So I’m standing in this huge public space, this huge airport, and this woman, who is a total stranger, is touching me in a very intimate way in public. So my first thought is–this is very strange–and I’m a painter so I’m kind of like I think there might be something interesting image here. But I also realize it’s a political moment, right. It’s this moment where this person, because of a power structure that exists here, can touch me in this intimate way in the name of security. So there are all these layers to what’s going on here. And that was really the beginning, where I was like, I wanna look at this image, I wanna look at this situation and see what’s here. I’ve been working with this theme now for five or six years.

TW: Okay, so, we’re looking at a painting of people looking at their cell phones, as if maybe they are trying to take pictures. What’s your interest in that as a subject matter?

TB: Yea. often, kind of as I was saying, a lot of times the images in my paintings start from just an everyday situation that you would kind of see anywhere, right, at this point. You’re always seeing people on their phone and taking pictures on their phone. And then, you know, just having this moment of like, ok let’s actually look at this, there’s something strange here, just that strangeness is the starting point. And then, as you work, the painting kind of becomes its own thing, other things might emerge or other people might see other things in the image. I’m very interested in this reality that we have where we are often looking at what’s in front of us through a screen. We’re kind of delaying the moment of experiencing it to the moment where we’ll look at the picture or share the picture. What does it do to our relationship to the person who is physically next to us, or our relationship to that space? So those are some of the thoughts that are driving the image. 

TW: Yea, I know some people who can’t stop snapchatting and you know, instagraming, or what not. Is that something you participate in, or do you generally stay out of it? 

TB: Sure, I’m on social media. And it’s not necessarily a critique, to say oh we shouldn’t be on social media, but it is a moment of saying this is strange–what’s happening here–and what is it doing? Part of why I love painting is that it’s not a dogmatic, you know, this is bad, this is good. It’s more what is this? It can be more than one thing at the same time.

DK: And how about this one over here? It also seems to be a crowd imagery of a very different kind. I’d be excited to hear you talk about it.

TW: We’re looking at a painting that has a huge crowd of people that look like they’re covered in a big white sheet, yea, and there’s some feet peering out beneath. 

TB: These two paintings actually are the most recent, and therefore I think they’re probably the most difficult for me to talk about, because I’m not sure what’s going on there. I mean, I can tell you how I put it down. Both of these just were images that kind of came to me and I put them down without questioning them too much. I will say that I had the idea for this painting for a long time and then I was at the Women’s March in January and I thought, okay now is the time to put this image down. And I don’t think of it as a literal depiction, but I am interested in situations where many people are together, what happens. As in a crowd and in a public space, what is that and what happens in that situation. 

Tirtzah Bassel, ‘Convergence’, 2017, oil on canvas, 120 x 60 in. Image courtest of Slag Gallery and the artist.

TW: So yea, maybe we will get into that a little more. You said you just put it down, do you sketch before hand, do you have many variations and then make the painting? Or do you just go? What’s your process?

TB: It’s a great question. Different paintings are different. For the airport paintings for example I spent a lot of time at airports, sometimes when I’m traveling, but sometimes I go specifically to sketch and watch and see what’s happening. And then I bring those sketches and photographic references back to the studio, sometimes make more sketches and sometimes only then do I get to painting. But in this case, no, as I said, I just put it down. There’s no prep…

TW: Nice. Sometimes that’s the way to go.

TB: Yea, you know, you kind of have to follow what you get. When you have a really clear image and you put it down and it works, it feels amazing, but most of the time it doesn’t work that way. (laughter) So, you have to lay the groundwork…

TW: So this is ultramarine blue, or are we looking at cobalt blue? What is this?

TB: All of the colors you see are mixed, but yea there’s definitely ultramarine blue in there. 

TW: That’s one of my fav’s.

DK: I have a question for you, since we are on the airport topic again. I’m curious how the response has been to your work, or how it’s grown since the travel ban, or so quoted “non-muslim” ban, that Donald Trump put in place, and that was barred. I guess I’m curious how that’s shaped the work, if at all, and your response to the political climate while you continue to make this work?

TB: Sure. My favorite response with the airport security work is, and I’ve making for this for a number of years, is when people will come back and say to me: “every time I’m in the airport I think of you.” (laughter) Which to me actually speaks to the power of painting and of artists to create images that really shape the way we see reality. Really inform the way we might see an otherwise mundane and ubiquitous situation. What it does there can be different for different people, but the fact that people are in the situation and they have this echo in their mind of a painting, or they see a place in a different way, that makes me feel like the painting is working. Actually all those images precede the recent ban..

DK: That’s what’s so interesting to me…

TB: So yea I’m always working with this theme, I’m sure I will continue to make work with it. I mean the issue now is in the news but it’s not new at all. And People are profoundly affected by these structures and these policies for a long time. I’m very aware of that as an Israeli, but also as an American, so we’ll see how it continues to play out.

Tirtzah Bassel, ‘Ingress’, 2017, Acrylic and oil on canvas, diptych, 72 x 120 in. Image courtesy of Slag Gallery and the artist.

TW: So I guess we never got into this earlier, but you live in Brooklyn? And You have a studio in Brooklyn? Okay, so what neighborhood?

TB: I live in Sunset Park, and my studio is at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, great studio building.

DK: Great. Going back into the work a little more, you talked about your interest in historical painting. I guess I’m curious as a female where you see yourself fitting in, or if there are any female artists that you look at contemporary or past?

TB: Can you elaborate on what you mean ‘as a female’?

DK: Yea, definitely. I guess in the history of painting, in particular, it’s been very male dominated, I’m always curious, being a painter myself who’s female, when I look back at the history books, there’s always sort of, you know, there’s not a lot spots I can really relate to. So I guess I would like to hear more about…. how you feel about that, and if there’s an enlightened perspective you have to offer?

TB: It’s interesting, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I guess my entry point is that I fell in love with painting. I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a very creative environment, but I didn’t grow up going to museums or really seeing a lot of art, so I kind of came to it a little later, and I just loved it. It was this kind of reaction of I want to do that and I started to do that. And of course, the more you learn and the closer you look you see this history that you’re talking about where there are very few female artists–that we know of–and there are, you know, there’s misogyny and patriarchy embedded in the imagery and in the craft, so what do you do with that? I think my answer is, for me, I didn’t want to throw out painting. I love painting, and I love the history of painting. So I love Goya, and I love Piero della Francesca and I love Velázquez, and I love Degas, and I love the language that they speak and I want to be speaking with them. I believe that painting is very expansive and it can hold this dialogue and I can use it to continue this conversation. I can critique what’s happened, I can say something new. I guess part of what I am getting at is I see people who say I can’t be a painter, or I have to leave the tradition of painting because it’s so problematic, that’s where I don’t want to lose painting, I want to stay and use this language and see where I can go. But there’s no easy answer. I mean you can see the theme of who’s looking and how they’re looking, which is an old theme, it runs throughout art history. And there’s definitely an element of the male gaze and so on and so forth. I want to be in there and I want to be in the conversation and see where we can bring it now. As men and women today, with our understanding of culture. 

DK: That’s a great response.

TW: Yea, you’ve given me a lot of faith in painting, in this conversation. It’s great, I’m really digging it. (laughter)

TB: I’ll even say more. I don’t think that other medium…maybe there’s this illusion that a newer medium, maybe video art or installation art is more neutral, I don’t think that’s true. I think that this question is something that an artist in any medium has to grapple with. And I love paint, so I’m gonna do it with paint. You know I think painting can hold that. 

TW: Cool. So I have a question. Why did you choose to make the edges of your painting neon? It has a really interesting effect, especially with this blue one. 

DK: And is it an underpainting?

TW: Yea, (laughter) and we’re curious, is it an underpainting or a thing you do after?

TB: I mean you just answered it, because it’s so cool! (laughter) Actually, I think it did start as an underpainting situation, not in this particular painting, but, this kind of goes back to, for me, this moving between medium, like going between the oil paint and the duct tape, and also ipad drawings, that movement between the different medium has been very generative in my own practice. And something that started to happen after I was doing a lot of sketches on the ipad, was that I was creating these very bright underpaintings, or not even an underpainting, but like a ground. And I was using fluorescent colors like fluorescent yellow and fluorescent pink and so on. A friend pointed out to me and I realized in hindsight that I was trying to recreate the backlit effect of the ipad in the painting. So I think that’s how I got to the fluorescent, and I think it’s one of these kind of things you don’t plan but when you look back at your practice you can see these threads. And I think then I just put it on the edges too cause it’s just such a cool color, and then that kind of stayed. I often paint over paintings, so sometimes just that border would be the only thing that stayed from that initial ground. And then I got into it, I loved the way it bounces off the wall. You can see it also in this small painting and here as well, you kind of have this little glow. 

TW: Yea it’s really nice. 

TB: So that’s my answer, it’s cool.

TW: So, that’s interesting I didn’t know you used the ipad, is it for sketches or actual works?

TB: For a long time it was the primary medium that I used for drawing from observation. Which, even though the large oil paintings are not done from observation, I’ve always maintained that practice. I feel like it gives me this immediacy and this energy and pushes me to a more inventive place in my work. So the ipad for a while was mostly where I was doing that. Now I’m mostly doing it in gouache and watercolor, but I’m sure I will circle back to the ipad again. 

TW: Nice.

DK: So I think we have time for a couple more questions. Do you have any shows coming up?

TB: Sure. So there’s a solo show coming up in Germany, that opens on April 1st at Kunstverein WormsAnd it’s also a painting show. 

TW: Great. Nice.

DK: I have one more. I was a little curious about freedom of expression and knowing that you’re from Jerusalem, if you have a perspective to offer between the difference between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and here and if that’s something you would want to share.

TB: Yea just break it down a little more.

DK: Yea. Things are just very different in all those places, and as someone who has a perspective that I know both of us do not have, as you’ve moved through those places and I’m sure you’ve had friends working in those places, if you see any trajectory for it…and I guess if those feelings also show up in the work too. 

TB: Actually, I think that Israel and the US thankfully have some things in common at this time. They’re both democracies and there is freedom of expression, I have critique of the government in both places, but I also recognize that we are very fortunate that we can sit here and say actually whatever we want about the government or policy or whatever. And that’s not a problem, no one is going to arrest us for that. That’s an amazing thing. I think maybe an interesting question is what is the role of the artist in a time where these freedoms are being tested or questioned or even just when one finds themselves with a government that they strongly disagree with. And I think it’s an interesting question and I don’t have like this pat answer for you, because I also am an educator and I think a lot about social justice and I have a practice in that area. I think about on a very practical level. I think about, you know, there are hundreds of people in this city who go to sleep hungry every night, what’s my responsibility? And I have a project that addresses that specifically. As an artist, I think we actually have the power to evoke more complex conversations. I don’t see in my artistic practice, I see it as different from being an activist, or being a politician, or you know. This painting is not going to solve anyones problems, right, it’s not going to change a policy. But, it might evoke a complex, deeper conversation, it might shift the way people see a certain situation that they encounter everyday. And, that might influence change in the long run, or just as a culture. So, I actually I think one of the things that’s most valuable that we can do is as artists is maintain that complexity and actually move away from the dogmatic ‘this is right, this is wrong.’ If we want to do that we should go to the demonstration, we should call the senator, congressman, we should do all those things, but also we do something that is maybe less practical, but can speak to something deeper and do something deeper. And If you’d talked about freedom of expression earlier, I mean, poets and artists are often the first ones to be shut down in non-democratic societies. Why? Right? We do have this unique power to speak to something, people recognize as very powerful.

TW: Yea. That’s very very well put. I think that’s something we all needed right now. that pump up talk right there.

DK: And I think your answer far exceeds my question, so I am very thankful.

TW: So one last question, you talked about your project specifically addressing hunger. Can you get a little more into that?

TB: Sure. So, I started a program called PopUp For Change, where teenagers work on specific projects for social justice using design thinking. So, I don’t know if this on topic for your podcast, but…

TW and DK: (laughter) Everything’s fair game.

TB: But, actually, in a deep way it’s related to what we were talking about, because as an artist I do have this struggle. And I do have this question, it’s very pronounced coming from Israel and now here as well, where’s there’s this immediacy to the political situation and to social issues…what can I do? What can I do…to address this really extreme situation? But I’m an artist, and so the way this project evolved was is when I decided to get into design thinking, which is a creative approach to problem solving, that’s actually very popular in Silicon Valley, to develop things like ad iphone or ipad, and it’s basically a method that is centered on going first to your user to understand what they need. Through interviewing and observing, right? This idea of empathy. And then, from there, evolving a solution. The idea being that we’re always, we think we have the best solution. But really we’re creating maybe a good solution for ourselves and not for the person who needs to use it. So, as an artist, I’m always interested in how to bring creative practices to people who don’t think of themselves as artists. And when I learned about design thinking I thought okay what if we take this creative approach to problem solving, bring it into social justice, use it for social justice. So many times you find social justice projects that have the best intentions but don’t actually meet the needs of the people who they’re trying to address. So, I’ve been working, this is going to be our third year, each summer I work with a group of teenagers. And each summer we created a pop-up food truck for residents of a low-income housing development and the first thing we did is went and spent time with them, to figure out what they needed, right? We think it’s cool to bring a pop up truck with fresh food, because you don’t have access to fresh food, but do you think that’s cool? What kind of food do you think would be coo? And we actually learned that yes, they needed access to fresh food, but they were also looking for opportunities to bring parents and kids together in like communal activities. So our food truck became a lot more than food truck. It became an interactive mural on the side of the truck, it became like games, and a dance parties…so, you know, and all of that came out of this focus that the teenagers had on understanding the deeper needs, not just the superficial needs. 

DK: It seems like anytime you ask someone what they need you’re on the right track. 

TB: Although it’s a complex thing to do, but absolutely. Yea. But I will say that it’s, design, being a designer, and being an artist, in some ways run on opposite tracks. Because a designer is working towards a particular outcome, while artists are, you know we start with certain parameters, and we craft or medium that we worked towards, but actually our power is in that we don’t have an end goal. And so, unexpected things can happen there, and I think that goes back to what we were talking about earlier, the power of artists specifically. I mean I’m working obviously on both tracks, but I do believe in our role as artists, specifically.

TW: Well that sounds like a wonderful project, and we’re excited to check it out and we will link it. 

TB: Yea check it out, 

TW: Alright. Well this has been a wonderful conversation with Tirtzah Bassel here at Volta, NY. 

TB: Thank you.

TW: Thanks for being with us. This has been a production of Open House which is myself, Til Will, and…

DK: Myself, Debbi Kenote.

TW: So yea. Thanks so much for listening and yea. We are here in C22, that’s the booth where you can see the paintings for the next 4 days. Come see them!

Painting Needs Complexity: A Conversation With Tirtzah Bassel

One thought on “Painting Needs Complexity: A Conversation With Tirtzah Bassel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s