CHRISTOPHER BASSI northern verses
melted: THE LIQUEFACTION OF COOL CRITICAL DISTANCE IN CHRIS BASSI’S NORTHERN VERSES It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.1 So I shall never understand why, suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest's a lie. Let it go. Here is the secret. Here.2
HEAT/WET In the tropical latitudes, the heat immerses all in a torpid brume of wetness. In these regions, the ﬁssures that separate subject from object become saturated. The humidity forecloses the more dispassionate approaches essential to experiences of diﬀerentiation, comparison, objective appraisal. The languor of the tropics slows down the gaze; the artist must gaze across at the object through a continuous, connecting ﬁeld – one where the sweat and breath and bodily wetness of the observer is caught in the clammy claustrophobia of space that wraps around and drips oﬀ the objects observed. In these zones of the tropics, the critical separation of ‘subject’ from ‘object’ used by traditional western approaches of representation, is dissolved in a miasma of hot wet blanketing continuity. Here, object is subject/ subject is object. Continuities and connectedness and causality intertwine. Hierarchies disintegrate. Categories evaporate. Bassi is interested in the materials and approaches of western painting. He works with oil on canvas, and refers to artists from the western canon for inspiration. Yet within Bassi’s paintings, these western frameworks reappear re-made as estranged, uneasy, awkward. Bassi’s mise-en-scenes feature familiar symbols and icons of ‘the exotic’ that reluctantly lurk, casting sulky, lambent shadows on a pictorial centre-stage. Each of Bassi’s paintings share the same glazed background washes. Dragged thinly across the surfaces, the oxides and umbers sink into the warp-and-weft of the canvas beneath, making the fabric of the artwork a key to understanding the capacity of a painting to perform as a stage. These warm washes underscore Bassi’s choice to re-present painting as a platform on which he situates each subject for reconsideration. As a result of their shared background, these players – the palm fronds, frangipani, shells, paw-paws, pearls and the human participants – call across the boundaries of each canvas to each other, so that within the gallery, the painting-hang coalesces into a singular installation format. Despite the familiarity of the subject matter, Bassi approaches these over-subscribed icons of the exotic as ‘strangers’, as subject-matter that may-never-be-fully-known; that deserve closer scrutiny and that call for the intimacy of his close attention and extended time. The outcome of this process are familiar images that have been strangely transformed into eﬃgies that verge on the uncanny. While they beckon and beguile with the opulence of their form and colour, Bassi’s attention retrieves them from the indignity of appearing fully-knowable. Bassi returns to his subject matter again and again in a wordless confession that for him, they remain limitless; they co-exist as both ‘stuﬀ’ and as the stuﬀ-of-dreams. They swell to the brim with personal histories as much as with the histories of global expansion. And their very muteness lets in the whispering of less-known languages.
Henry David Thoreau, 1854, Walden
Jean Rhys, 1966, Wild Sargasso Sea
SOUND/SILENCE Tropical spheres reverberate with atmospheric zones of auditory immersion; soundscapes that perforate the thin damp skins separating the listener from the world beyond. Cicada-calls pierce through the thin division of the tympanic membrane to enter the body like a tinnitus – an inner/outer soundscape that enmeshes precise auditory communication within a cacophony of sound-suspension. Intermittently, short, sharp slivers of silence drop punctuate these auditory immersions. And in the intervals when one group of cicadas falls away and another starts up, the listener is brieﬂy - terrifyingly - made aware of being separate to their surroundings. Other acoustic zones of the tropics draw their drama from water-scapes: from rain, rivers, the running of rivulets and the susurrations of sea-sounds, that perimeter of non-verbal conversation where water-meets-land. Bassi’s imagery yearns towards understanding such conversations; in a large self-portrait he holds a shell to his ear, leaning intently into the secret whispers the object holds within.
Installation view | Christopher Bassi, Northern Verses, Yavuz Gallery, Sydney
Installation view | Christopher Bassi, History of an Ocean 1-6, Yavuz Gallery, Sydney
Installation view | Left: Cool Calm, Collected (Shari), 2021, oil on canvas, 38 x 30 cm; Right: Twin PawPaw, 2021, oil o
on canvas, 100 x 90 cm
Installation view | Christopher Bassi, Northern Verses, Yavuz Gallery, Sydney
Installation view | Christopher Bassi, Death, Northern Verses, Yavuz Gallery, Sydney
Installation views | Left: Shell Song, 2021, oil on canvas, 250 x 140 cm; Right: Shade from the Sun, 2021, oil on canvas
s, 250 x 200 cm
Installation view | Left: In A Mango Tree, 2022, oil on canvas, 40.65 x 35.6 cm; Right: Frangipani Land, 2021, oil on c
canvas, 200 x 160 cm
SCENT/SMELL Tropical atmospheres run slow with smells and scents. In these realms, olfactory lungfuls absorb contradictions and confusions in equal measure. Frangipani and the old oil of a discarded drum. Ripening and rotting fruit. The stale air of an interior and the breeze from the sea. Ingested, breathed in, they become part of our own inner self-scape. Like the heat and the sound that envelop and suﬀocate and enmesh, here smells and scents defy the politeness of physical boundaries. Immersion and infusion. Submersion in seduction. The scandalous tumescence of ripening paw-paws. The velvety areolas of frangipani. Salt on the lips. Rime along the perimeters. Bassi draws from a number of his own inter-connected cultural waterways to navigate new world-views in his work. His Grandmother on his Mother’s side was born on Mer in the Torres Strait Islands; his Grandfather had Muslim Indian and Yupungathi Aboriginal ancestry. Bassi’s Father, of British heritage, moved to Singapore when Bassi was still at school. Personal stories and richly lived experiences inﬂect his take on how the western tradition of painting can “slow things down”; can re-frame new possibilities; can be used as a means of introduce a stillness and silence from which new dreamings can be coaxed. Re-presented in the heat of the tropics, the subject matter in Bassi’s paintings evade easy categorisation; they confound the simple reductive clarity of western genres. Famously, Anglo-American art historian Norman Bryson described still life as one of the ‘enduring categories of classical European painting’3; separated from the categories of history painting, landscape and portraiture through “its exclusion of the human form” and its representation of “the world minus its narratives”. In a way that is totally of the tropics, Bassi’s subject matter seems to ﬂit and dart between such distinctions. His shells and ﬂowers, his fruit and fronds ﬂicker against the shadows of the histories of colonial expansion; they reverberate with the enduring presence and portent of portraiture. They are manifestations of the landscapes beyond their being. They are haunted by the complex ghosts of race relations, sexuality, self-image and self-esteem. They remind us that we are all enmeshed. All inter-connected. That we breathe and sweat and lick the ghosts of others. They remind the world that there are places where the western ideal of cool critical distance has melted away in the slow burning heat of the extended moment.
Norman Bryson, Chardin and the Text of Still Life, 1996, in ‘Critical Inquiry’, vol. 15, no 2 (Winter 1989) pp 227 - 252
EXHIBITION Christopher Bassi, Northern Verses 28 April — 21 May 2022 Yavuz Gallery Sydney Essay written by Patricia Hoﬃe ___________________________ COPYRIGHT © 2022 Yavuz Gallery ___________________________
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