Aglaé Bassens, building portals between inside and outside
"Travelling has had and continues to have a great influence on my work. Being a stranger somewhere gives you a unique perspective on things, and forces you to rely more on observation than at home - great practice for a painter."
Aglaé Bassens has been in the shoes of the outsider many times in her life, moving from country to country during childhood. Now her painting practice draws on an ability to move fluidly between inside and outside worlds, capturing stillness and anticipation within moments of time and place. We talk to Aglaé about what place means for her and her work and how a transitory lifestyle has shaped the way she approaches her painting.
Junko: Aglaé, your work seems to encompass a sense of inside / outside; segments of still interior spaces - for example the cropped image of a sofa - and snapshots of urban landscapes - such as apartment block windows and palm trees. Painted with a softness of touch and delicate palette the paintings and drawings seem dreamlike, as though unable to fully capture the solidity of the subject. What is the relationship for you of these binary structures of inside and outside?
Aglaé: The inside / outside dynamic is certainly at the core of my practice. From a personal angle, I attribute it to moving between several countries as a child, fostering a sense of longing and displacement: being an outsider, and building for myself an inner world. From a painterly point of view, I’m interested in the binary nature of our engagement with painting: At times we are fluid, immersed in the moment of making, working intuitively. Then we put our brushes down and step back and look at the painting in a different way, with an analytic gaze and a more rational approach to decision making. This see-saw of the way we interact with a work in progress is fascinating to me and is something I keep investigating through a range of motifs such as windows: framing devices as well as portals between inside and outside.
I believe that painting is about desire, and that desire is precisely located in the midst of a binary structure: between not having something yet and having it. I like to activate my paintings by creating visual counterparts which play off each other and excite the eye, even in the way I handle paint (slow strokes versus fast strokes, specific object versus all over surface, etc). The result, hopefully, is a body of work which intrigues but leaves you guessing, that displays absence but implies presence, appears familiar yet feels strange.
J: How does colour and texture play a part in your process?
A: Texture is important in my work: hair, fur, and fabric are recurring motifs. They allows me to engage with the sensuality of the materiality of paint. To me, the excitement of describing texture in painting lies in the transformative nature of paint, the conjuring of any image from the stuff of paint itself. Materials such as water, hair and fur interest me because they can be described so easily with simple brush strokes, and the transformation of those strokes into a believable head of hair or plane of water enchants me. The folds of fabric relate more to the fabric of the canvas itself, a reminder of the materiality of the structure of the canvas itself.
Colour fascinates me but I am not a natural colourist. I am very much a tonal painter, although I greatly enjoy using unexpected colours to throw an unfamiliar light on everyday sights. Sometimes I use a specific colour as an homage to a painting I love: my pink sofa was a reaction to a pink satin gown painted by Manet.
Both colour and texture are great tools for giving a psychological reach to my paintings, as they are emotional triggers and so wonderfully evocative, like Proust’s madeleine of painting!
J: In the painting and drawings we also see cropped and close-up images of people; the edge of someone’s face or the shirt and tie of the subject. How does the human subject matter fit in to your conceptual framework?
A: Since I started painting cropped nudes during my BA and up until this day, it is true that the figure has occasionally crept up on me in the studio. My paintings of places and things, which could be described as still lives, feel to me like empty stages waiting for their protagonists. It can feel as though the action has taken place already and we arrive at the painting having missed the moment, or it can feel as though we may be waiting in vain for a story to unfold. The structures in my paintings often act as viewing platforms and windows, asking the viewer to project their gaze into the very painting they are looking at. In all of those ways, the very absence of people makes them present in our mind’s eye. With the recent paintings of shirts and foreheads, I wanted to look at the opposite dynamic: being so close to the figure that it disappears, making the intimate and small become huge and diluted. As you pointed out, my figures are always in some way cropped or obfuscated, never fully giving anything away to the viewer.
Written by Amy Moffat
February 20th 2017
Windscreen Palms, oil paint on canvas, 65 x 45 cm, 2014
R Train Blue Seats, oil paint on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, 2017
Too Close, oil paint on canvas, 80 x 110 cm, 2016
J: There’s a real sense of place within your portfolio and having known you for a while I’m aware that you’ve lived in a few fairly different cultures - how do you find travel and sense of place affects your practice - both in subject and in the practicalities of making.
A: Travelling has had and continues to have a great influence on my work. Being a stranger somewhere gives you a unique perspective on things, and forces you to rely more on observation than at home - great practice for a painter.
I also love the idea of travelling as a flux, and as a means to transform oneself: I could be someone new every time I am in a new place. I use a lot of framing devices directly referencing travel: the window frame of a train, or the rear view mirror of a car, or a view seen from behind a car window pane. Different cultures have different ideas about good taste, patterns, decoration and palettes. I love being inspired by interiors I spot through windows in a strange city, more than I am by visiting its galleries. I might use those colours or patterns in a painting of an entirely different place, confusing familiar sights and instilling a strange sense of displacement. As I mentioned earlier, the sense of longing and existential unease in my work can be traced back to my experiences as the new kid in Sweden, Belgium, England or Turkey. When I travel now, I am more aware of the type of images I am looking for and am more self conscious about what I look at.
In practical terms, I don’t make much work while abroad unless I am away long enough to get a studio and for oil paintings to dry. Mostly I am out as much as possible, taking lots of photographs, then spend a lot of time editing and drastically cropping until I narrow in on what it is specifically that drew me to take the picture initially. Upon returning to my studio, the process of painting becomes a process of biased, personal memory.
J: Where has been your favourite place to make work and what plans do you have for your work over the coming year?
A: Over the years I have been lucky to have studio time in Turkey - in Assos and Istanbul - Iceland, Crete, and East London. In my experience, it is the harder places that produce the best work: during my residency in Iceland, I kept wishing I would come home as it was extremely isolated and lonely. But the focus which came hand in hand with that feeling allowed me to make work of a standard I still look to now. It’s hard to pick a favourite place as the different light and the climate make each situation wonderful in its own right, but I do have a weakness for my studio in Assos in the Turkish countryside, where I am so free of distractions and interruptions that I always produce work I am happy with.
I am currently making a new body of work looking at the everyday and the domestic. Meanwhile I currently have four paintings in The Other Side, a group exhibition of figurative painting curated by Paul Carey Kent at The House of St Barnabas in London. I was also just nominated for the Denton Art Prize 2017, with the winner announcement still to follow.
Palm Shirt, oil paint on canvas, 18 x 14 inches, 2017
Curtain Wall, oil paint on canvas, 100 x 75 cm, 2015