Brooklyn painter, raised orthodox, painting in ‘drag’ of Western canon | Whuff News

(New York Jewish Week) – At first glance, Tirzah Basel’s painting of a young woman surrounded by three attendants and a portrait seems familiar.

That’s by design. Basel’s work, “La Menarquia” (“The Menarche”) is a study of Diego Velázquez’s famous 17th-century group portrait “La Meninas” (“Women in Waiting”). However, while it reflects Velzacúz’s composition – including costumes that reflect the Spanish court costumes of the period – the Basel version is very different. Velázquez’s painting depicts a child princess who is dominated by more powerful people in her life. In the Basel version, meanwhile, the princess is at the center of an imagined rite of passage as a woman to her menstrual blood force.

“La Menarquia” is just one of a series of paintings produced in Basel that turn classical “Western” art on its head. Basel’s solo exhibition at Slag Gallery in Chelsea, “Canon in Drag” features 35 pieces that, as a collection, create an imaginary world outside of patriarchy – centered around the experience of women.

“What if the first birth experience was not a footnote, but part of the main story?” Basel asked conversationally. “What is that canon?”

Basel, 43, told New York Jewish Week that her approach to these paintings is inextricably shaped by the Jewish experience. “I feel like all of Jewish history is cycles of subversion and canonization,” she said. And now she’s getting a new color.

Although she now lives and works in Brooklyn, Basel grew up in an Orthodox family in Jerusalem. She sees her childhood as a mixed bag: while rich in culture, she realizes that, as a woman, she will never reach the highest positions of power. “When I go to Midrash [an institute of Torah study for women]”I went to one place specifically to study the Talmud, because it became clear to me that this is something you have to have in order to hold the keys to power in that world,” she said.

While that gender injustice was a big reason Basel left Orthodox Judaism in her youth, she still has an affinity for the canons (Jewish and otherwise) and believes she can overthrow the patriarchy if she works hard enough. .

At age 22, halfway out the door of the Orthodox world and on his way to becoming a social worker, Basel stumbled upon a drawing room at the Jerusalem Studio School. The institution’s atelier-style approach to art education appealed to Basel’s respect for tradition, and she quit social work to enroll full-time in studio school. Since the program was not accredited, she felt that choosing to attend there was the ultimate commitment to art: learning art for its own sake, or art in Hebrew, “Lishma.”

The studio school’s dual emphasis on drawing from everyday life and learning from its teachers inspired Basel and helped shape her art. At the same time, however, Basel felt that the institution—along with the wider art world—reinforced gender biases that she thought she was abandoning orthodoxy. “The art world as a whole is incredibly misogynistic – although sometimes it’s not immediately apparent,” she said.

For example, Basel, who has two children under the age of 7, says she’s heard motherhood described as “career-ending” by many people in the scene, from artists to dealers to collectors. “I think it’s true in the art world that the image of the ‘capital-A artist’ is the bohemian person. Rather than the calm, reactive person. Motherhood is supposed to be the opposite of that,” Basel says.

Basel’s “The Birth of Madame Arnolfini’s Orgasm,” left, is a response to Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century “Portrait of Arnolfini.” (Barry Rosenthal/Courtesy of The Artist and Slag Gallery and Louis Ribes Mathieu/Flickr)

Basel believes she internalized these feelings during her first pregnancy, from being in the public eye to being sheltered. “I was really determined that nothing would change,” she said. “In my personal life, I’m having my baby here, and I’m doing my art here. Being pregnant and going out in the open felt like stepping outside myself.

But the birth of a second child, a daughter, which happened before Covid-19 hit, changed everything. “When my daughter was born [the compartmentalization] I started to feel crazier,” she said. “I started making these paintings and drawings of the birth experience and it hit me: there are no birth images in the canon of Western art.”

During the long months of his confinement, Basel’s identity as mother and artist was forcibly dissolved. She could not go to her studio to paint; Between taking care of her children and working her day job at a non-profit organization, she had little bandwidth for art. With her traditional media, she didn’t have the time or space to work with oil paint, so she began using a quick-drying, water-based paint called gouache.

“It felt a bit like the end of the world – my studio was gone, the future of the galleries was unclear,” Basel said. “Everything was up in the air and it set me free. Then something clicked, and at first it was almost as a joke. ‘What would the canon look like if this first birth experience were not a footnote but part of the main story?’ I thought.

She tried to “copy” a few famous works and posted the pictures on Instagram. In her take on Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century “Portrait of Arnolfini,” the pregnant wife is now in virtual orgasmic birth. The response was immediate: “It’s been fluid – people tell me that I’m sharing things that are very personal to their lives, that they’ve never seen before.

But sometimes her flips were flops. Just replacing female nudity with male nudity doesn’t always work; After all, there are plenty of male nudists in the canon (think: Michelangelo’s “David”). In contrast, skin-to-skin contact with fathers, the way nursing mothers are often portrayed in classical art, felt very disjointed.

These artistic experiments eventually became the “Canon in Drag” collection – 35 gouache paintings on display in the gallery, with some more works still in progress.

Although he is not a fan of labels – the expression “Jewish artist” is confused with “woman artist” – Basel admits to a public struggle with the canons of Western art, while at the same time, respecting the canon enough to fight with it. It stems from her Orthodox Jewish background.

“It’s a blueprint for what I’m doing now,” she said. “Despite the rigors of Orthodox life, I experienced Parshanut. [exegesis] Model as highly creative and full of agency for the individual. Many people can interpret the same text in different ways and apply it to their lives in different ways. Canon is really a technology to have a rich conversation, which goes back and forth at the same time.

These days, Basel recognizes that she is a secular Jew, but that hasn’t stopped her engagement with Jewish culture and writing. But she’s still figuring out how, or if, these elements will play into her future career.

After all, Bassel says that when she started her “Canon in Drag” pictures, she couldn’t imagine that pictures of childbirth would appeal to a global audience – but she also realized that this was an internal bias. “Who is your ‘universal’ is the real question,” she said. “Canon has an assumption about that, and that’s what makes ‘Canon in Drag’ a challenge.

It’s “Canon in drag.” On view of the Slag Gallery522 West 19th Street, October 27 through December 3, 2022.

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