by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Tirtzah Bassel is a visual artist based in Brooklyn, New York, who recently inaugurated a solo exhibition at Slag Gallery that showcased her new series titled Canon In Drag. The figurative paintings are a playful reconstruction of some of the iconic works of art in western art history, with strong currents of socio-political commentary in the foreground. Through this series, the artist takes familiar works of art - such as The Creation of Adam, the famous 16th century fresco by Michelangelo - and uses gender reversal to recreate the images. For instance, she uses the famous Michelangelo painting to produce Born This Way (after Michelangelo Buonarroti) (2020), approaching other works in a similar manner. With the patriarchy deeply entrenched in our political, social and art histories, Bassel asks the viewer a question through these paintings - "What would our world look like if we grounded it in a different set of origin stories?” We caught up with the artist to learn more about her process.
Bassel’s investigation into the roots of male-dominated imagery in western art canon emerged from the artist’s profound, personal and intimate interaction with her own femininity. She tells STIR, “When I gave birth to my daughter, it hit me that there are no depictions of birth in the western art canon. There are many images of the mother and child, but the act of birth is almost completely absent. Considering the fact that all humans share two basic experiences - being born and dying - it is very telling that birth is missing from the canon." This experience opened up the artist’s eyes to the many vital elements of the feminine experience missing from art history. "I started to wonder what it would be like to live in a world in which the canon centred the experience of menstruating bodies and birthing bodies, where these experiences would be part of the main story rather than a footnote,” she tells further. This led to the genesis of Canon In Drag as a concept.
The contemporary artist began the project by handpicking various masterpieces which have continued to command power and admiration over the centuries. She then proceeded to flip the gender of the characters depicted in the works. Bassel reworked and recreated images like Origin of the Milky Way (1637) by Paul Reubens, The Birth of Venus (1485-1486) by Sandro Botticelli, Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823) by Francisco Goya and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon(1907) by Pablo Picasso. The artist treated Canon In Drag as more than simply a gender flipping exercise, but approached it with the gaze of world-building, much like one would while writing a fictional novel, designing a video game or creating a screenplay. Through this approach, the artist questioned the representation of both, the female form and role in art, and pushed the boundaries of both in her works too. Bassel says, "The interesting thing is that gender flipping is not always that interesting. We see many nude men in art history, so painting nude men on its own was not enough. But when I started gender flipping mothers it became interesting because it revealed a double standard in our culture related to parenting and caretaking. For women, being a mother is considered something that enhances femininity. That’s why we see so many eroticised mothers throughout art history like in the Reubens painting. But parenting or caretaking does not necessarily give men points for masculinity, in fact sometimes it does the opposite." Through the artist’s remake of Origin of the Milky Way by Reubens, she does exactly this, eroticising the role of the father. The result is a rather controversial image which puts forth questions about the perception of men, and the expectations society places on a mother.
To build on the authenticity of the entire trope and extend the world-building, Bassel wrote accompanying texts for each image. The artist says, “We never look at an image in isolation, we are always looking at images that are referring to other images from the past and present. Art historians have the power to tell us what they mean and what makes them valuable… The texts were a lot of fun to write because art historical language is so self-important and even funny. In some case I wrote the text from scratch, but in others I discovered that I could use an existing text almost untouched, because once I paired it with my painting it took on a whole new meaning.”
While Canon In Drag is an idea built upon images from the past, the conceptual approach to these images expands its purview to an understanding of culture and society rooted in the present. Bassel shares, "The world that we live in is a perfect reflection of its presiding origin stories. Recent events, including the move by the Supreme Court of the United States to revoke constitutional rights to abortion are deeply tied to our culture’s origin stories that see female bodies as a force to be feared and controlled. These stories are not just fairy tales read to children at bedtime, they play a key role in creating our reality.”
Canon In Drag opened its doors to visitors on October 27, and is on view until December 3, 2022.