Reem Bassous: The Lebanese Artist Who Courts the Infinite

Images by Vincent Bercasio

Stepping into the cave-like Kaka‘ako studio of painter and educator Reem Bassous, with its etched-up walls, paint-splattered canvases, and taped-up pencil drawings, calls to mind a stark bomb shelter or a recess like Lascaux—somewhere haunting and prepossessing. In memorializing landscapes, the post-war experience, and immigrant struggles, Bassous isn’t afraid to settle into the shadows of memory and consciousness. Her work is often explorative and laborious: it’s a physical exercise to excavate and reflect the lived experience of growing up amid Lebanon’s civil war. Her persistence to uncover and understand the enduring result of that shock recognizes that political conflicts never really end for their so-called survivors.

What was the stimulus for your latest body of work?

The color black has always been very significant to me. I knew I wanted to work on a black painting. The title of the work is Courting the Infinite and the infinite is like a can of worms with philosophical ideas. Bringing that into the studio to convey them through painting is an exciting thing. In my research, I realized I needed to come to terms with death, with the idea of what happens later and of losing people.

Did anything about death reveal itself to you during the process?

Yes. I’m terrified of death. (Laughs) I get this sense of near panic when I think about it. And it’s not my own death I’m worried about, it’s people I’m close to like my parents, my daughter. It’s almost to the point of a severe phobia. Part of this processing is just imagining the inevitable and trying to determine how you would deal with the situation when it comes. I don’t have any answers yet.

But your work tends to not really supply answers.

All of my work pretty much leaves you out at sea. And that’s probably because that’s still where I’m at. I don’t know that it’s my role to supply conclusions or closure. I think there’s something very honest about showing everyone that I’m in the same boat too.

Well, I do feel compared to your other work this one is more optimistic than your other paintings.

Yeah, I refuse to believe that this is where we end. I just feel if that were the reality, if this is where everything stops when we die, it’s terribly unfair to so many people that have had very hard lives. It’s horribly unfair. I refuse to believe that this is it. In a way I think that’s hopeful.

But at the same time, I think the work has matured because I have been at this for almost 23 years. That’s probably why I’m assessing these big ideas from a more analytical perspective. They’re in a way less emotion driven, even though it’s a very emotional subject. But the execution is more analytical.

Do you feel like you’re working in a certain artistic tradition? Or do you feel like you’re trying to get away from that?

No, I don’t think I’m working in a specific tradition. I do pay homage to the abstract expressionist painters who had their roots in very strong observational drawing. I am of that school. But it’s always the painter’s question with respect to what are you going to add to the table and how are you going to show people the physicality and the material of paint in a way that they have not seen before. That’s why the application of paint is an endless study. As many individuals as there are, there will be very different marks created.

I’ve sometimes sensed a frustration with painting in your body of work. You seem to recognize the limitations of your medium. I feel a connection with you in terms of trying to honor a form, but also wanting to break from it and take it elsewhere.

I love that you get me. I think that’s certainly true, in terms of me being very aware that paint is limited in its physicality. For example, in the series that I’m working on now, which is a series of portraits titled Moribund Outlivers, the series tackles a very difficult subject, which is trying to convey the psychological state of the postwar survivor in Lebanon, the war survivor living in postwar times. That’s why the title of “moribund” is so important and “outliver” as well. I mean, they’ve lived past their expiration date. There are so many things associated with that. There’s survivor’s guilt. There is a coming to terms with a non-war existence.

Basically, who am I now without this attached to me as a label? How do you convey that specific hysteria through the mark? That is something I have tried so hard to convey and I have failed more times than I’ve succeeded. I’ve been working on the series for about four years now, and I’ve only finished about 10 portraits. It’s not because I’m trying to paint a traditional portrait that looks distressed, but I’m trying to channel this hysteria into the paints and then into the mark and having that mark form the face. That’s incredibly difficult. More often than not, you end up with no face.

I’ve always understood the figurative elements in your work to be ghostly. Never mutated or demented or scary, just … not fully there. It reminds me of a thought by another writer who was defining ghosts in tandem with migration: A ghost is something that has no home, which is essentially what a migrant is in another country. These are people who are not fully at home anywhere.

Yeah, they haven’t arrived. In my work, one can think of them as disintegrating as well. Within the past year I would say every painting I’ve done has had a figure in some capacity and these figures have taken different roles.

Why do you think you are drawn to create more representational figures these days? How do you think your work is speaking to or in conversation with our political climate?

I did a painting recently, Endless Red, that’s a hybrid study of Picasso’s Guernica and Peter Paul Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents. The piece has very obviously narrative scenes of violence, like blood gushing out of someone’s neck, for instance. It took me a good hour to mix a specific red for that painting and it has approximately 10 or 15 different colors in it. It’s a very, very complex red that I mixed. I’m in an endless state of anger about the political situation these days, not only in the Middle East, but very much in the United States. It’s very hard to be an artist with the level of sensitivity we operate within and not feel affected to a degree, regarding what’s been happening in this country. And I’m also an immigrant and I’m a minority and the list goes on.

What do you think is the purpose of memory in terms of your art?

The thing about memory that’s so interesting is that no matter how well you remember something, it’s never the exact reality. I remember very specific things about my childhood or about the war in Lebanon, and then sometimes I would have these discussions with my brother and his memory of the very same thing is very different. So it not only depends on the person, but it depends on the perfect alchemy of elements that led to that specific person experiencing the memory or the reality at the time in a specific way, which then became a memory.

Memories can be very haunting and they can manifest themselves in repeated nightmares, like the ones I’ve had over the years. I really hesitate to use the word therapeutic when it comes to painting. But in some way, there is an element of catharsis when you’re working on a subject that has haunted you for so long and then you get to this point where you don’t have those recurring nightmares anymore and you feel like you have more power over that memory. With respect to negative memories at least, I think that it’s necessary to address that, to process your past before you can even start to address your present and future.

Is there a relationship between the use of abstraction and your memories and first-hand experience of growing up in a war-torn environment?

There were three years which consisted of a lot of trial and error, where I was trying to depict Lebanon and the war zone from my memory. After those years of heavy experimentation, I discovered it’s really not about what that experience looked like, but rather about what it felt like. The abstraction is very much connected to sensation—it is the mark that creates the sensation of the situation. At one point I was using a lot of fireworks in the paintings based on instinct, it just made sense to do that. To mimic that level of violence. I was constructing the image and I was deconstructing the image and I knew when to stop and I was in control.

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