Cast in the cool tones of an overcast afternoon, Aglaé Bassen's paintings create stillness in close crops of quotidian scenes. Inscribing the gallery with uncertain doublings — rain staining glass, light catching in a curtain's gauzy cascade — objects are saturated by the weight of a gaze peering closer and closer yet. Bassen’s canvases riff on the genre of “still life,” entertaining a dialogue between the arresting temporality of photographs and the active curiosity of a body exploring foreign environments. Striking a rhythm of scale and pattern, these canvases are animated by a repetition that verges on obsession, everywhere seeking windows, glass, the slant of sun through fabric. In the transposition of past visions onto a present scene, Bassens captures the familiar in uncanny distance, filtering the city through the lens of first encounter,a seeing that is both discovery and remembering again.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Bassens and Oglander, moderated by Nicole Kaack. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition You Can See Better From Here.
Eric Oglander: Going back to talking about the way you utilize painting to recontextualize these photographs, I wonder why do you feel compelled to use paint to do so?
Aglaé Bassens: I remember you warning me you’d ask me that. Why do I paint them? I guess because I feel that —even though the paintings are really quite fast— when you look at a painting it slows you down. Maybe it’s because you’re aware that someone took time to make it, there’s an element of choice. You stop and look at a painting of a fence way longer than you stop and look at an actual fence. I find that it is a tool to make you pay attention to the mundane things that you would otherwise miss. I also just love painting so I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Eric Oglander: Was there a time when you weren’t painting a thematic thing like windows or fences? Do you remember when you started on themes?
Aglaé Bassens: A lot of the things I paint now, I started painting in the first week of art school, but all jammed together so that it seemed incoherent at the time. One week a window, the next week a palm tree, and so on. Over time, I’ve realized that they’re all threads of this ongoing curiosity about what it means to look at things, what it means to participate or to be on the outside. All these different selves have different motifs, that become a range of imagery. At the time, I found it confusing to be drawn in all these directions. So I guess it’s been boiling up for a long time, but only quite recently have I been able to group things and understand that they are strands of the same ideas.
Eric Oglander: I think it takes just getting in the studio and working to really figure out what your work is. There are a lot of artists who, when they first start, think that they’re no good because they don’t immediately start making a coherent body of work. So often I hear people say that they’re not creative, they don’t have a creative bone in their body, but it really takes just getting in the studio and playing. And spending a lot of time doing it, until you do find that consistent thread or that thing that you can adhere to and feel comfortable with.
Aglaé Bassens: It’s funny that people feel so anxious about it because it’s actually quite difficult to not put meaning into everything. If your whole practice was about removing the creative input, you would find that it’s hard to do. The more internal a thing is, the more meaning.
You’re right, though, that when you start out, there’s a lot of pressure to make work that fits a niche and carries a recognizable theme. It feels dangerous to do something that seems really random. You don’t give yourself a chance to see how that might actually be related, just in a different way that needs to be developed.
Eric Oglander: I feel like people often get scared of branching out because they have settled on something that was successful. God forbid they change and see how a new thing is received. Sometimes the reception is not as good as it had been. It’s definitely a consistent struggle as an artist.
Aglaé Bassens: I thought of a question for you.
Eric Oglander: Go ahead.
Aglaé Bassens: You ready?
Eric Oglander: I’m ready.
Aglaé Bassens: I’m thinking about the mirrors as this collection of images found online and also about your desire to be less directly physically involved, to relinquish the aura of authorship and the drama of ‘I created this.’ It seems that you want to draw attention to things you’ve noticed and are happy to give that the stage.
But I also know that you make things carved from wood and, as we were talking about earlier, the objects you carve have functions, which perhaps allows you to feel like you have justified their existence because they have a purpose.
I was wondering about where you see yourself in the work. How do you think about your fingerprint? Do you feel like you have to make the object because there’s something missing from placing the photograph that leaves you frustrated?
Eric Oglander: No, I don’t feel frustrated by the photo project. I appreciate it because they are someone else’s photographs and I’m literally just taking them and dropping them onto Instagram or Tumblr. But I also love working with my hands. The simple act of carving wood or working with something tactile is a necessity to me.
I do find that I like making objects that, if not actually functional, might at least appear functional to further remove them from the art world. I also like making objects that hang on the wall rather than live in space because then they become a little less sculptural. They are like tools on the wall in the garage. Sometimes I’ll just put a hole directly in the object so I can hang it on a nail.
My work is motivated by the same sensibility that leads me to collect folk art. These people weren’t trying to make objects that would sell for tons for money in gallery spaces. They’re just loose, fun, haphazard, lighthearted objects.
Aglaé Bassens: This tension between what you want to make and what you enjoy doing, between craft and how you justify that with meaning… Is art maybe just finding something that you like doing and then figuring out ‘how do I make this seem reasonable to make.’
Nicole Kaack: In terms of… the preciousness of the thing, perhaps? Or investing an object with aura.
Aglaé Bassens: I feel that integrity is really present in your work. You decided that it has to be honest or come from a place that is genuine, and the only way that you do that is by doing it because you enjoy it. So it sits in a strange place between craft, enjoyment, and purpose.
Eric Oglander: With social media and the success of so many young artists —people making just ungodly amounts of money off their work— there is pressure to make the next cool, hip, important thing. I feel like it’s all lost in that moment. It doesn’t feel like art to me.
Nicole Kaack: The performativity in it?
Eric Oglander: The lack of integrity. What is the intention behind the work? Why are you making it? I see a lot of work that is explicitly trying to be the next impressive, hot thing,
that is not what the artist truly loves or is truly nerdy about. I don't know. I like seeing really nerdy work, where people are just excited and giddy about what they’re making.
I feel like that’s often not the case, that the work hides behind this overwrought, flowery, academic description of what it means. I’d rather walk into a space, see the work, be able to interact with it, feel something from it before figuring out what it’s necessarily about.
[Audience member]: Do people ever complain to you about using their images?
Eric Oglander: One woman from Washington got in touch with me. The mirror was on her patio and was reflecting this beautiful sound. It looked like a painting, just gorgeous. I posted it and it ended up being in a Huffington Post article that they did about Craigslist Mirrors. Her nephew saw the photo and alerted her that it looked like her sound.
She got in touch with me and, at first, I was really nervous thinking I was going to be sued or something. Not that I’m making any money from them. But she was only excited, sent me other listings of hers where she had posted mirrors. The home where the mirror was photographed was for sale. She wanted me to post on my website and advertise her home in Craigslist Mirrors. It was really funny.
But I think that’s the only person that’s been in touch with me. Other people have been upset that I’m essentially stealing other people’s photos, but that’s what my project’s all about. I don’t argue with that.
Nicole Kaack: Do you ever encounter that as well, Aglaé? You sometimes source from Google Images.
Aglaé Bassens: No one’s picked up on it yet. I’m not hiding. Most of the work here is stuff that I photographed, though definitely in the past I’ve used found images. In this painting, the pink sofa. But it doesn’t really look like the picture. I’ll get an image of a sofa, I’ll crop it, and I’ll modify the palette. It’s changed a fair bit.
It does do something different to use someone else’s image because it becomes more generic somehow. The way that I add my personality comes from other experiences and does not directly reflect the real place. How you choose to create atmosphere is different.
Nicole Kaack: You can’t work on your feeling.
Aglaé Bassens: So you transfer details from other things you remember. I’m trying to remember something I’ve seen that I don’t have a picture of. I’m trying to relocate that vibe. Sometimes things are made up. That rainy window is just made up. Going back and forth you lose track of where the image is. Especially if you keep going back to the same themes and it feels like you are also holding in your mind all the paintings you’ve made before. Or pictures on your computer, which then died and you didn’t back everything up, but somehow you remember this picture you took.
Nicole Kaack: The failure of memory.
Aglaé Bassens: It’s like recognition of a memory. An interest in how much or how little you need to just trigger something you’ve seen before, rather than making something exactly like this picture.