AGLAÉ BASSENS / ERIC OGLANDER
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
April 7, 2018
Nicole Kaack: Thank you all for joining us today. I suppose most of you are friends and family, but I can still introduce and talk about the project a little bit. Karen and I started this conversation series about six months ago now, in the fall. The talks have been a means of thinking about different ways of getting artists’ voice out into the world and offering this opportunity to artists to generate more writing and dialogue around their work.
At the same time, we are also trying to think about how conversations and relationships with others inform a practice. So in addition to asking artists to discuss the work that’s in the space, but we have also asked that they invite someone to converse with who has impacted their practice. Aglaé, whose show we’re in right now, invited Eric to come and talk. I’ll read brief bios for both of them and we can launch in.
Aglaé Bassens lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Solo exhibitions include Surface Tension at NARS Foundation, Front Parting Cabin Gallery, London. Recent group shows include HEADS, The Java Project, Contemporary British Painting Prize, Biennial Of Painting: The Painter’s Touch, Museum of Deinze, PAPER, Saatchi Gallery and Jerwood Drawing Prize, London. Her work is featured in New American Paintings and the 100 Painters of Tomorrow published by Thames and Hudson. She has a BA in Fine Art from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University and an MFA in Fine Art Painting from the Slade School of Fine Art, London.
Eric Oglander’s father is a painter and his mother a ceramicist, so he fell quickly into artmaking himself and had his first show in 2005. Small-scale minimal sculptures make up the majority of his work, but a love of collecting, buying, and selling objects led to the creation of Craigslist Mirrors, a vernacular photo project made up found mirrors from Craigslist. Eric published a book, Mirrors, with TBW Books in 2015. He currently resides in Queens, New York.
Thank you both for coming today. I wonder if you could start off by explaining how you know each other and how you met, because I think that’s an interesting story.
Aglaé Bassens: I was talking to the Soho Revue Gallery in London about doing a potential show. Didn’t know if it would be with someone else. Eric Oglander’s name came up as a potential person to be paired with. Upon looking at the work, I realized that I actually had seen it and even tried to paint his photographs of mirrors, almost three years prior. But I hadn’t realized at the time that he was an artist and that these were part of a project.
It was a really strange coincidence and a good pairing. We started emailing each other a lot, putting the show together. We exhibited togged in, was it 2016?
Eric Oglander: Sounds right.
Aglaé Bassens: Then I ended up moving here to New York, so that was a natural next step in our friendship.
Nicole Kaack: [to Eric] Do you want to say a few words about Craigslist Mirrors? I don't know if everyone here is familiar.
Eric Oglander: About four years ago, right before I moved to New York when I was still living in Tennessee, I was buying and reselling stuff that I found on Craigslist to make some extra money. Usually buying and reselling bicycles, but I would often peruse the garage sale section. People would have these virtual garage sales, where they’d post everything they had for sale onto Craigslist.
Someone had posted a photo of a mirror, and it was just a stunning, standalone photograph. So I dragged it into a folder on my desktop, and then decided to try to find more of them. Before I knew it, I had hundreds of these images collected. When I moved to New York City, and went to Printed Matter for the first time, I saw all these incredible art books and decided that I should make a photo book out of this collection of images.
But I didn’t have the money to publish a book at the time. So I started a Tumblr instead. It kind of went viral for lack of a better word. I later started an Instagram, then a publisher contacted me and we made a book.
Nicole Kaack: It happened in the end. Full circle.
Eric Oglander: Yeah. I was rather obsessed with it, when I first moved to New York. It was all I was doing, hunting for this imagery.
Nicole Kaack: [to Aglae] This project seems parallel to your practice as well. One of the things that we talked about in preparing for this conversation was obsession; how in both of your practices, there is this a process of collecting image and such that, through repetition, you build motifs to invest with meaning. Maybe you both want to talk about your method of finding images?
Aglaé Bassens: In my work, there are things like the windows and the fences that I have been seeking out for a long time. As I see fences or windows that I like, I photograph them; I also have a folder on my desktop with windows to paint, that dates back quite a ways. To some extent it’s a process of sifting through a lot of things. So, sometimes it’s through having seen something that I like the look of, that I know I want to paint.
But sometimes it’s a different method, where I’m actively searching for imagery that’s already out there. Then it’s working out what I like and why I like it. The more I look, the more I can find what’s inside that or outside of that. That’s probably where that obsession is in my mind.
Eric Oglander: Mm-hm. And constraining it within a particular theme of windows and fences forces you to pick out these more subtle emotions happening within the singular theme that makes it more accessible.
Aglaé Bassens: Yeah, you can start to have whole folders of fences with stuff behind, fences with nothing behind it — different levels and subcategories.
Eric Oglander: That’s what I loved about the Craigslist project; they were all photos of mirrors that people were selling, but they all encapsulated different emotions. Some of them were really funny. Some of them were really dark and sad. You were able to explore different things within that one category.
Nicole Kaack: Do you think the way you respond to the emotion in the mirrors is a projection? Do you think there’s a certain element of trying to stage something in those photos? This comes back to another discussion on intentionality in internet imagery.
Aglaé Bassens: Maybe it’s like a license. Even if you thought, ‘It’d be great to have a picture of a mirror that would look this way,’ in your case, Eric, or for me, ‘It would be great to have a picture of a window that would be like this’; if I find that it’s already out there and someone else has made it, I still have license to paint it. Because that discovery establishes it as something that is out there and exists in the world, as opposed to just something that I’m projecting.
There’s an element of not wanting the work to be a trace or expression of my hand, but still somehow recognizing the thing I want to do through someone else. That gives me a freedom.
Sometimes when I want to paint something, and look through imagery, then think, ‘Maybe I should just imagine it.’ I make myself just do a drawing to paint from. And it’s weird the things that come up in the drawing — you would think it would be very plain. But things appear that are actually quite distinctive, and then I realize that it’s based on things I’ve seen, or it’s difficult to pick out exactly where it comes from. It’s a form you’ve remembered badly or an image derived from 200 pictures of fences. Deciding to draw without looking at a picture is a filter.
Eric Oglander: I’ve personally really struggled with self-branding and self-marketing, even attaching my name to my work. The mirror project was a way for me to act more as a curator, showing an aesthetic I appreciated. It was not my work, when it came down to it. Someone else was taking the photograph. It can still live within the canon of photography, but these people didn’t intend what they were capturing. That’s what I really appreciated about it.
Nicole Kaack: It’s a double remove. Not only is it not your work, but the objects themselves are about trying to get away from being represented to some extent. Mirrors deflect or dodge their own selfhood.
Eric Oglander: I think it’s the same thing that’s attractive about folk art or outsider art; people like to think that those individuals aren’t making work so that it can become the next hot thing. They’re just making it because they love it, or because they interact with it spiritually.
Nicole Kaack: It’s interesting that the Craigslist mirrors have a purpose. There’s a use value to them, which is the sale. Both of you interact with imagery that is very rooted in the mundane or quotidian — you are finding the expressive in the everyday. There is perhaps a sense of creating ceremony or ritual of day-to-day things.
Aglaé Bassens: For me, it’s to do with cropping. There are lots of pockets of beautiful things every day that you walk past; things that could take on narrative or be sinister that you just glide past. These scenes are what happen when you stop and try to imagine that specific square outside of its context. I do that by cropping the imagery. I like that it’s available to anyone — it’s not a special place you have to travel to or a special mindset. It just takes actively stopping for a second to look at something.
Eric Oglander: You’re recontextualizing this imagery via painting, while I’m doing it by removing it from Craigslist and putting it on another website.
Aglaé Bassens: Yeah, it’s definitely context.
[Audience member]: [to Eric] Do you crop it?
Eric Oglander: No, I’ve never altered any of the photos. Just drag and drop.
Nicole Kaack: [to the audience] I should say, please do jump in if you have a question. [to Eric and Aglae] The idea of context comes back to the question of whether the works require a certain lens or a certain person to be understood? What is required of the viewer in terms of knowledge or nostalgia, perhaps?
Aglaé Bassens: I’d like to think my paintings are for everyone. I think part of what draws me to subject matters that are quite mundane, ordinary still lives, is that they’re so accessible. Everyone’s had the experience of seeing the sun hit a window a certain way. I guess I don’t want to claim any meaning in the same way of not wanting to claim anything about who I am. I like that it’s almost void of meaning — there’s been 1000 ways of painting it, there will be 1000 more, and they’re just interesting in themselves. I don’t even have to do anything, in a way. We each have a way of looking that’s highly personal. You would notice these everyday details when you stop and pause and so, by definition, you’re being introspective when you do pay attention to them. Those mundane things immediately channel your personal experiences — where you came from and where your mind goes in those times when you stop and look. That’s the sort of space I want to bring people back to when they experience the work.
Nicole Kaack: What would you say about that, Eric?
Eric Oglander: With the mirror project, I feel like people that are less entrenched in the academic art world are more likely to see the humor in the work first. But others have taken it and made it this highly intellectual, highly conceptual project. Which is fine. I feel that it’s for everyone. I think everyone can pull something from the project.
Nicole Kaack: I was thinking about that element of play in relation to your other website, Tihngs, which is this amalgam of objects that you’re finding or making and selling. In interesting ways you are inserting yourself or the things that you’re making into this collection of used or forgotten materials.
Eric Oglander: Yeah, it feels like a really similar project in a lot of senses. The sculpture I make plays into it as well. I try to make works that are really simple and quiet, that feel like they could’ve just been found on the street and don’t have a strong presence. We talked before about how I think it’s easy to make impressive work when it’s immense in scale or color. It’s easy to shock people. So I try to make the opposite of that. Objects that are really quiet and don’t jump out at you. You have to come to them.
Nicole Kaack: [to Eric] It’s interesting, your work tends to be more sculptural, but the Craigslist Mirrors was kind of a foray into a photographic lens. [to Aglae] And, in parallel, this work is more sculptural than you’ve done before.
Aglaé Bassens: I think the first sculptural thing I’d done was a mural, which is obviously in space but still very flat. So this is the first standing alone thing I’ve done. The way I came to them or the feeling that came with making them is an interest in making objects that just look like ordinary things again. This is a thing that has a purpose, it exists as a screen in the room. I’m not doing anything shouting for attention. It’s a modest object and I’ve just tweaked it a little bit. It just makes you think about it twice but it’s not doing anything more. I think I might try and make more things like this.
Nicole Kaack: These sculptural forms continue the project of disturbing spaces in a similar sense to the crop and focus of your paintings.
Aglaé Bassens: Looking and experiencing are two different states. A lot of the windows and fences are portals between those two things. I’m interested in how these objects feed into the bodily experience. It’s more immersive. So maybe it’s a new way I’ve found, other than scale, to engage the viewer’s body. The smaller works on the wall are more to do with holding an idea in your mind and less to do with presence.
Eric Oglander: It’s just funny that you use the word ‘portal’ because that’s one of the more common descriptors I see attached to the mirror project. As if you could use the mirrors to enter another dimension. It’s just a mirror on the ground reflecting the sky, a blank blue, but it really does feel that way.
Nicole Kaack: I think there’s a particular thing about those images which give you a lens into a different part of a space that you otherwise have no context for. The photograph of the mirror describes surroundings that you can’t inhabit physically. That seems to be an interest in your work as well, Aglaé.
Aglaé Bassens: A mirror is also an illusionistic, trompe-l’oeil thing. Within limited means, the space of a rectangle, there are endless possibilities that can be reflected in it. I like the tension in the fact that, even though these new works are sculptures, they still feel flat. Or they feel like they could be right up against a wall. I want to continue a relationship with flatness. I like the parameters of painting, which feel similar to the attraction of mirrors.
Nicole Kaack: Do you want to talk at all about the show that you have at NARS as well? And the cultivation of that particular but distinct motif?
Aglaé Bassens: I have a show that opened in Sunset Park last night, which is on for a month. The theme or the anchor in terms of imagery is a palm tree, which may seem a little odd in relation to this show. But it ultimately comes from the same impulse to repeat and exhaust the image. The motif falls across different surfaces, printed on a shirt, on wallpaper, in the form of an actual palm tree. I’m interested in the way that it becomes more elusive and meaningless the more you repeat it. It started from the idea of the palm tree as being a cliché logo for the exotic. Conversely, a lot of the work here had to do with being on the outside as a newcomer to New York. I thought it was interesting to play on an overused symbol for that, to dismantle it by repeating it over and over until it becomes unremarkable and unexotic.
Nicole Kaack: It’s curious that you say that repetition creates meaninglessness. I understand that, but I also feel that it invests meaning. In the way, for example, that we have discussed each of your relationships with motifs. The more you see of the index or collection, the more you sense what is unique in each one. This comes back to what you were saying about the fences.
Aglaé Bassens: Maybe it actually makes you think more about what you’re looking at. If you repeat the same word over and over again, it starts sounding weird. I think it’s the same thing when you keep repeating the same image. Ideally you want the viewer to get to the point where they think, ‘What is it about palm trees?’
Nicole Kaack: You mentioned that the image of the palm tree was sourced from a particular experience.
Aglaé Bassens: At some point, my parents were living in Santa Barbara, California, and that was the first time I saw palm trees in real life. I felt really sad because the only ones that are planted there are basically dying. They’re not native to that climate but are planted from a different seed. They’re continuously used to visualize a glamorous, West Coast lifestyle, but at the same time they’re just these dying plants. They didn’t really mean what they’re supposed to.
I also just find them really compelling. I can’t help wanting to paint T-shirts with that image — they’re as ordinary as windows, but completely different. It’s a nice challenge to try and bring something that isn’t cheesy to such a cheesy image. Or to try to bring tension to it.
Nicole Kaack: We talked about the possibility of you both posing questions to each other?
Eric Oglander: You want to go first?
Aglaé Bassens: Have you got one planned?
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]: I just have one question. Speaking of nerdy stuff, what are your thoughts about “resolution.” I’m talking about the technical resolution. Would you feature a picture that was 100 pixels by 100 pixels wide? When you’re picking these images, if something is 100 by 100, would you still include it? As opposed to something that was 1200 by 1200.
Eric Oglander: Some of the images are totally lost. The resolution is just such crap that I can’t really utilize them. But I definitely don’t shy away from ones that are really blurry. I actually think it adds something a lot of the time as long as you can still tell what you’re looking at. But sometimes people will upload a photo and not really know what they’re uploading, don’t take a second look. You can’t really tell what you’re looking at, which is interesting in its own right, but I’m more focused on the content that exists within the photograph. That’s lost with poor resolution.
[Audience member]: So you don’t blow anything up.
Eric Oglander: No. I did do a project with Anne Thompson and the I-70 Sign Show. It’s brilliant. Anne realized that in rural Missouri there are all of these empty billboards all over the interstates and highways with nothing on them. She got in touch with the people that are in charge of the content and asked about getting artists to put work in this open space. She reached out to me about doing a Craigslist mirrors billboard. Immediately, I thought, ‘That’s impossible. There’s no way that this can exist on that scale, because the images are so low resolution.’ But she was able to make it happen and it looked incredible. It probably had to do with the distance from which you look at them. But it worked and I certainly didn’t think it would. Check out the project. It’s really cool.
Nicole Kaack: Does anyone else have questions?
[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.
[Audience member]: I had a vague question about your use of color. I’m interested in the fact that this pink, very vibrant pink, seems quite melancholy. I think it’s just the context perhaps. But also, in the corner of my eye, the orange subway seat also seems like a utilitarian object, that’s supposed to be joyful or something because it’s in public space. How do you choose your colors?
Aglaé Bassens: I’m glad you said that about the subway seats. I’m basically not good at color. So I paint so that objects are just one color. It’s basically black and white but with a color. With the subway seats and with the palm trees, I was interested in this idea of forced cheerfulness.
If you have a really depressing sofa but you upholster it in palm trees, it’s supposed to cheer you up. It’s this weird waiting room vibe. I felt that way with the subway seats because the colors are very bright. It’s kind of beautiful, but if you’re on an antique, empty subway, it’s also very hollow and depressing.
And then they replace some of the seats so that they are orange and funny yellow. The variation is really weird and kind of looks like a palette. The pink has a particular history. The sofa from Google that I was talking about earlier was my first pink painting.
I did it after I saw a show in the National Gallery in London of Goya’s portraits. There was one portrait of a woman wearing this pink satin dress, and the dress was amazing, I loved the way that the folds were described. But I don’t paint people. I kept thinking about that pink and wondering where I could use it. If you’re into that color and these folds, paintings done a long time ago of elaborate clothing, you can’t really do that anymore because styles are different.
I remembered that she was sitting down in the portrait, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can paint the sofa she might have sat on.’ It has the idea of a presence but without a person. So that was my first pink, which is exactly the same as this one. Now it’s recurring— every now and then I’m like, ‘Oh, this needs to be pink,’ always the same hue. It feels soft and feminine, but here it’s on this medical privacy screen. I’ve been thinking of using colors outside of context to play on associations that feel slightly off but in ways that are not clear.
[Audience member]: I disagree that you’re bad at color. I think we can all see this painting!