Tirtzah Bassel in Domestic Brutes at Pelham Art Center

In Dialogue with Tirtzah Bassel

Tirtzah Bassel grew up in Israel, the oldest of eight in a Jewish Orthodox family. Her father is a traditional scribe and her mother, a ballet dancer by training, was the homemaker when they were growing up. Although both of her parents were very creative and the value of making things by hand was instilled early on, she didn’t know any professional artists and had no concept that making art was something she could do as an adult. This changed when she took a night class at the Jerusalem Studio School in her early twenties. She recalls how she was immediately drawn to the intensity of the atelier-style learning environment, drawing and painting from observation, and the methods of the Old Master paintings. She later decided to pursue an MFA at Boston University and subsequently moved to Brooklyn. “Perhaps it was the continuous traversing of worlds – religious and secular, Israel and the US, Hebrew and English – that led me to ground my work in close observation of seemingly mundane situations,” she says.

When Tirtzah Bassel looks at supermarkets, airports, shopping malls and waiting rooms she sees ubiquitous situations that are often disregarded but play a key role in shaping perception, identity, and culture. Through the practice of drawing she relinquishes the “names” of what she sees and submerges herself in the strangeness of what she observes. For her this process of defamiliarization reveals the startling beauty of unnameable colors and unexpected forms. It also exposes obvious but overlooked frameworks that make up our existence —“stanchions that corral travelers in a security check line, cubicles that delineate boundaries between co-workers, selfie rituals the encroach on an intimate moment.” The artist says that through drawing, painting, and site responsive installation she affirms the “indispensable role of bodies, the sense of sight and the sense of touch delineating the contours of reality and making sense of our position within it.” Through her artwork she aims to explore and reveal the apparatus that numbs us to the politics embedded in every moment of our lives. Tirtzah Bassel is participating in Domestic Brutes at Pelham Art Center.

AS: How do you see your work in context of Domestic Brutes’ feminist perspective?

TB: I remember chatting with a collector at an art opening when I was pregnant with my first child and he asked: “will you start painting babies now?” I immediately responded “no”, thinking to myself that I will not become one of “those” women painters. But in the months and years that followed I began to recognize that my reaction to that seemingly casual remark stemmed from internalized misogyny. Despite its progressive façade the artworld continues to perpetuate a patriarchal ideology that minoritizes and excludes women.

We, women artists of the twenty-first century, experience a double bind. On the one hand, the maxim ‘what is most personal, is most universal’ is hailed as the standard in painting and many artists have leveraged it to forefront personal narratives and individual experiences as subject matter in their work. However, the field of painting is still fueled by the Romantic notion of the artist as hero. As such, artists are encouraged to break with society’s expectations, travel deep into the subconscious – both their own, and the collective unconscious of humankind – battle with monsters and bring back their hard-won insights in order to rejuvenate society. Feminist critiques have alerted us to the patriarchal bias that is inherent in the archetype of the hero. Whereas the male hero is generally celebrated for his integrity and sacrifice, the female heroine is often sabotaged or worse, deemed inconsequential. On the one hand, we are called to mine our most personal experiences in order to make the most valuable contribution, while on the other hand, as soon as we touch a subject matter that does not register as integral to the cis-gender male experience, our work can be easily dismissed as irrelevant to the society as a whole. In other words, our experience is too ‘particular’ to be considered ‘universal’.

For many years I identified with the hero. I used this myth to leave a prescribed path and forge a creative life for myself as a young artist. It wasn’t that I was blind to the struggles of women in the artworld or ignorant of its shocking levels of disparity. I just thought that if I played like the boys, if I were better than the boys, that I would somehow bypass the pitfalls. But in motherhood the myth backfired. Sure, I was confident that I could tackle the technical (read: systemic) hurdles it presented – affordable childcare, a place to breast pump at work, epic scheduling challenges. What I hadn’t realized was that my very process – grounding my work in observations of daily life – would be a liability. And while I can choose to hide the biographical fact of being a mother from the artworld, I am not willing to betray the integrity of my artistic practice.

If I could go back, I would ask that collector why he didn’t think that babies fall into the highly regarded category of figure painting, and how my choice to paint them differs from generations of male painters who depicted their objects of wonder and desire. Exhibitions like Domestic Brutes that probe and complicate the definitions and experiences of being a woman in our culture, are a step towards creating a world and an artworld where women can truly bring our full selves and be equally valued for our contribution to a human collective and not as a subcategory of humanity. It feels vulnerable to ‘out’ myself as a mother in this context, and at the same time, it feels like the only way forward.

Cat Cow (Mama & Baby Yoga Series), 42”x72”, gouache on paper, 2020

AS: Tell me about the work in this show – its genesis and process.

TB: The Mama & Baby Yoga series comes from a desire for images that reflect my experience as a mother in all its complexity. I was inspired by a class that I took while on family leave after the birth of my second child. It was an important space for me, being with a group of women who shared a very particular set of experiences: pregnancy, birth, postpartum. Although I didn’t socialize much, I relished the opportunity to have a direct and visible relation to other mothers in a space designed to heal and to nurture.

As in much of my work, these everyday encounters began to seep into my studio practice. I started to play with compositions of the women in the class, and sometimes I would sketch my daughter late at night when she was asleep. Cat Cow, Down Dog, Warrior Two, Sphinx. Strain, Repose. In each image I layer the physicality of the poses with their psychological and archetypal qualities. These are not Mother Earth types or Yummy Mummies. These are women that I saw at a yoga class in Brooklyn. Real women in a complex and evolving relationship with their own bodies, their babies, the world. The yoga class may be yet another kind of conformism to an unattainable ideal of motherhood. But sometimes, finding the pattern is itself an act of liberation.

Down Dog/Cat Cow/Sphinx (Mama & Baby Yoga Series), 42”x72”, gouache on paper, 2020

AS: How do you hope viewers connect with your work in this show?

TB: We live in a culture where pictures matter a great deal. They shape the way we see the world and, in many ways, they become the world that we live in. Making pictures that matter is a hard thing to do. It is hardly ever as straightforward as making a literal depiction of an event that one has experienced. And yet, as artists it is our job to pay close attention to experiences that have systematically not been depicted, and to probe the ways in which they can be given form. My work is an affirmation that even the most mundane moments of our day, the moments that might be invisible in our culture, can have a significance that goes beyond our own individual experience.

Cat Cow (detail), (Mama & Baby Yoga Series), 42”x72”, gouache on paper, 2020

All photos courtesy of the artist

Domestic Brutes at the Pelham Art Center – Opening receptions: September 12th (in gallery with applicable rules); September 17th (virtual).

Artists: Tirtzah Bassel, Aisha Tandiwe Bell, Ashley Norwood Cooper, Maria de Los Angeles, Nancy Elsamanoudi, Fay Ku, Sharon Madanes, Lacey McKinney, Joiri Minaya, Rose Nestler, Simonette Quamina, Diana Schmertz, Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, Manju Shandler, Melissa Stern; Curated by Christina Massey and Etty Yaniv

Thanks to Audrey Putman for helping with the interview.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com