An Odd Symbiosis: Action in Non-Action

by Etty Yaniv

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Artist Tirtzah Bassel, at the opening night of The Lines Start Here

Charged with urgency, precision and an acute sense of place, Tirtzah Bassel’s luminous oil paintings at Slag capture figures lingering in uncannily familiar public spaces.  Whether the subject matter of these canvases are crowds, couples, or single figures, the related verbs are of present continuous tense; standing, sitting, resting. These paintings, waiting in line at Trader Joe’s, sitting on an Ikea sofa to check a text message, or stretching horizontally on a bare mattress in the bedroom section, all entail the action in non-action. Although the commercial spaces these figures populate are filled with utilitarian objects such as red (and empty) shopping carts and a row of colorful sofas or beds, these interiors convey a strong sense of void. Objects multiply, proliferate and are caught along with their creators at the same space in an odd symbiosis. 

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Trader Joe’s by Tirtzah Bassel

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Ikea/Bedroom by Tirtzah Bassel

In Ikea Bedroom, the gravity of a man’s weight on a thick mattress embodies the passivity of boredom yet the juxtaposition with the empty bold yellow space, blue ceiling beams and far wall projects a sense of anticipation, the yearning for a resolution, the approach of a meaningful ending, or perhaps an open playing field for the artist to move color around the canvas. As Bassel explains, “I drip, smear, slash and stroke paint across canvas, juxtaposing the sensual qualities of oil paint with the mundaneness of waiting in line.” Besides the importance of color in her work, Bassel asserts that her paintings are largely based on drawing directly from observation.

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Agent (LIRR) by Tirtzah Bassel

With the spontaneity of life drawing, the artist depicts characters that are generic yet personal, separate from their environment yet fully submerged in it, abstracted yet unabashedly illustrative. The Sunset Park based artist explains that her paintings often begin in an everyday situation when she suddenly has a sense that there is something very strange about what she is seeing. She elaborates, “for example, I was shopping at Ikea and noticed people lying down on the mattresses to test them out. It struck me that this was such an intimate set of actions and they were being performed in such a public space.” Bassel adds that another important element in her practice is that she works in a range of media and allows them to inform each other, often in unexpected ways.  For instance, working on her large-scale duct tape installations taught her to work quicker and pay closer attention to color as it comes out of the tube and to the way it interacts with other colors.

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Ikea/Couple by Tirtzah Bassel

Similarly, drawing on site with her iPad has influenced Bassel’s painting process. She explains, “the iPad is backlit, and I often start a drawing by flooding the screen with a layer of bright color. I think that without realizing it, I began to look for this quality in the oil paintings as well, by introducing a ground made of a very bright color – a fluorescent pink or a luminescent yellow – and letting it radiate through the other layers.” For her, the rows of red shopping carts become both the formal building blocks for structuring the painting and the conceptual inquiry into the lines that shape the everyday. 

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Overview of The Lines Start Here at Slag

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The Lines Start Here is on view at Slag until May 11, 2014. Slag is located at 56 Bogart Street; gallery is open Thursday to Sunday from 1 to 6PM