Interview: Christopher Bassi

Interviewed by Meg Slater Christopher Bassi's studio / 2017 / image: Christopher Bassi

Christopher Bassi is an emerging artist who uses the art-historical language of painting to critique and complicate the ways we’ve come to understand how cultures are constructed and represented. Through the creation of his own artefacts, symbols, tools, stories, and rituals, and drawing on rich traditions of dada, theatre, performance and costumery, he attempts to activate the space between the known world of anthropological and ethnographic representation and the pleasure of the inexplicable.

From February 27 to March 5, Chris showed us his practice and process by taking part in our Instagram takeover series on @inresidence_ari

MS: Why have you chosen painting as your major within your Fine Arts degree? What is it about this medium that resonates with you more than others?

CB: For me, there has always been something mystifying about painting. I fell in love with the paintings of the Old Masters like Velázquez, Goya, Courbet and Manet. Their paintings are like a window into another space, a space you can’t enter. There is something in the way a painting can set up a narrative that appears to have a before and after, but in the end it is and can only be a painting. I guess in that way and underneath it all, the primary subject in the work must be painting itself. Without a doubt, painting carries with it a great deal of historical baggage, and in my work I kind of leverage this by creating an ambiguity to its own historicity. It has something to do with our expectations of a painting. It’s an interesting time for painters. It’s a kind of chaotic time, anything goes and that means that there is a lot up for grabs as a figurative painter.

MS: Do you plan to expand your focus beyond painting and experiment with other mediums?

CB: Yes, I’m always thinking about other materials and mediums. Although painting is at the heart of my practice, quite a large part of the work is creating props and symbolic objects for the staging process. I’m interested in what might happen if I spent more time creating artefacts and what might happen when these objects are exhibited along side paintings. On another note, I’ve begun experimenting with dying canvas using textile dye. It kind of sparked from my time designing textiles. I think there is something ritualistic about the dying process. Transformation is a key word for me at the moment and I think that the dying materialises this concept quite well.

MS: Are all of your works elaborately staged using the process that you documented on In Residence’s Instagram?

CB: I think the staging and the performing of the scenes depicted in my paintings has become just as important as the paintings themselves. Of course in the past I’ve painted things from found images, but usually only for the purpose of carrying out technical studies. I think going forward, the staging will give me a greater level of control over the final painting, while also highlighting the conceptual undertaking in the concern of the veracity of representation in painting to become the question at the centre.
Christopher Bassi / Pearl Eater / 2017 / oil on canvas / 30 x 36cm

MS: You often utilise a couple of modes of painting that hold a great deal of art historical significance – portraiture and still life. These styles are also typically associated with a singular, ethnocentric narrative. Are you intentionally utilising these styles to question and/or challenge this version of history?

CB: That is precisely the case. It’s my own bi-cultural experiences that have set me down a path of interrogating the constructions and representations of ideological and cultural systems, and I like to think that my paintings are just visual representations of how these systems are created and enforced. My work relies a lot on irony, and using conventions already set by art history to kind of interplay my own position within the ideologies of these historical Western meta-narratives.

Christopher Bassi / Metamorphosis / 2016 / oil on canvas / 52 x 56cm Christopher Bassi / The Beads / 2016 / oil on canvas / 41 x 31cm

MS: How do you select the “cultural metaphors” that appear in many of your paintings?

CB: At this stage the process is quite intuitive. There is a lot of ‘play’ and ‘trial-and-error’. A lot of the objects are found and just modified to reflect, or allude to, an object that could exist in the real world. I like the idea of taking an object, like a bead or a bit of cardboard, and seeing how far I can push it to become something more. In his book Art and Otherness, Thomas McEvilley writes,

When one culture regards the objects of another, those objects are instantly incorporated into an alien mental framework; they are helplessly interpreted through some habit of thought different from the habit of their makers. (McEvilley, 1992)

My work responds to this kind of psychology, and leads to a lot of experimentation in this area. I think that’s the fun in the whole process. It certainly keeps it interesting.

MS: In one of your posts, you stated that you use clothing to create your own systems of representation. Could you please elaborate on this a little bit more?

CB: Clothing is just a very immediate sign system, one that I think can be easily read or misread. As well as being a recount of history, it is also one of the most important and visually immediate markers of class, status and ethnicity. As one of many forms of expressive culture, clothing practice has shaped and given form to social bodies. I think when interpreting all kinds of cultural systems like myths and ritual, one pays serious attention to the surface of things. Even if one assumes that a ritual performance implies something deeper, access to it leads through an exterior. I think about it to this virtue and find it just a great way to imply things.

Christopher Bassi / Instagram Post / 2017 / image: Christopher Bassi

MS: Are there any artists who you draw influence from theoretically and/or practically?

CB: I draw on different artists for different reasons. It is a kind of balance between what the painting is and how to make a painting. Technically speaking, I look to the Old Masters and the early modernist impressionists. Velazequez, Courbet, Chardin, Manet, Degas - these painters had an incredible economy of paint, and achieved amazing realism while still managing a very painterly approach. Painters like Michaël Borremans, Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, and others from the Zeno X Gallery, are definitely my contemporary points of reference. Theoretically speaking, artists like Mikala Dwyer, Justene Williams, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers address myth and ritual in their practice, and highlight the slipperiness of representation by using costumes and other objects. But most importantly I have to acknowledge those who directly influence of my practice everyday. I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by Julie Fragar and Mostyn Bramley-Moore at university, and also have great studio buds at Metro-Arts - Sam Cranston, Neil Douglas, Paula Walden and Bianca Maverick. These guys always help me out and are a constant source of inspiration.

Christopher Bassi working in the studio / 2017 / image: Christopher Bassi

MS: What are your thoughts on the relevance and importance of Artist Run Initiatives for emerging artists and creative professionals?

CB: As an emerging artist, and like many others who take their practice seriously, I feel pressure to get my work out into the world, to an audience. ARIs offer opportunities for emerging artists to present their work and get real exhibiting experience as well as critical feedback. Many artists, myself included, often show their work for the first time at an ARI like In Residence. When you really think about it, you can’t really get a more zeitgeist driven initiative then these kinds of grassroots level organisations, as they’re built on supporting the current channels of thought and practice that emerging and independent artists are working within.

MS: What are you plans for the future?

CB: Honestly I’m trying not to set goals too far into the future. I’m really just focusing on getting some good work done at university. I think people underestimate how freeing the time at university is to just experiment. I’m interested in using new materials and creating more interesting narratives for the paintings. Of course showing the work is an important part of the whole development process, so when it's all ready it would be good to get some of my work on a wall for an audience.

See more of Bassi's work at @christopher_bassi on Instagram.

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