Saturday, September 06, 2008

Art Space Talk: Reem Bassous

It has been said that war never changes-- that the weapons and reasons change, but the outcome is always the same… destruction. This concept is reflected in the art of Reem Bassous. In many ways her art, specifically her warscapes, stand as a testament of her experiences in Beirut, Lebanon, as well as to the realization of the horror of war in general. Scenes of devastation are present in her portraits as well-- faces fractured by the events they have witnessed. While hope can be discovered within the context of Reem’s art there is also the ever-present haunting reminder that the history surrounding warfare tends to repeat itself.

Homebody, 2008. Mixed Media on Paper and Drafting Film, 22"x30"

Brian Sherwin: Reem you studied at the Lebanese American University and the George Washington University. Can you tell us about your academic background? For example, did you have any influential instructors?

Reem Bassous: At the Lebanese American University I studied under 3 teachers, one of whom was trained at the Royal College of London, and the other two who had French training, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, and the Lebanese University in Beirut (which is different from the Lebanese American University). Out of all three, one in specific, Rita Faddoul, was the first to introduce the aesthetics of painting to me. She was the first to show me that painting was far more than material. You know, having lived in Beirut during the civil war, we had no exposure to the outside world, and the arts were at the bottom of the list, education-wise. So I knew very little about painting. I was in a Liberal Arts program with a concentration in Painting, but nonetheless, the classes offered were not enough to give one a solid understanding and ability in Painting. By the time I graduated, I still needed further instruction which I couldn't have obtained in Beirut.

At The George Washington University, I studied under Thom Brown. I believe that I owe a lot to him. While Prof. Faddoul introduced the aesthetics of Painting to me, it was he who challenged me the most. I think he understood where I came from but also saw that I was willing to do the work, so he took a chance on me. I think he has a true gift with students. He was able to work with me on the ideas I was interested in pursuing, all the while offering strong guidance and constructive criticism.

While at GWU, I also took classes at the Washington Studio School where I later taught. The person I studied under was Jo Weiss- both she and Thom Brown remain a strong influence in my work today. Jo and I come from the same frame of mind when it comes to Painting. She understands where I am going with an idea. After Graduate school I participated in the Drawing Marathon at the New York Studio School with Graham Nickson. It was probably the best academic endeavor I had taken part in. Graham is a fantastic teacher.

Allegory of Peace, 2006. Charcoal on Paper, 8"x8.5"

BS: I understand that you grew up in Athens, Greece and Beirut, Lebanon. How have your experiences living in Greece, Lebanon, and the United States... the cultural differences... influenced your work?

RB: My family and I have traveled extensively since I was a child. We were first based in Greece, then Beirut. I then moved to Washington DC to go to grad school. Living in Greece was a very special time in my childhood. It was stable and happy. Up until now, Greek culture represents a big part of what I think of as home (my parents now live on the island of Cyprus).
We moved back to Beirut in 1982, after I had turned 4. It was during a very bad time in the civil war. My parents always gave my brother and I a safe place to be and a lovely home. There were a lot of very difficult times and we lived in bomb shelters on and off for several years. As a child, none of that is a big deal- it's just reality- you adjust and move on.
We lived in a very close-knit community since there was an embargo on the country and people were more or less confined to their neighborhoods for safety reasons, so we became very close to neighbors and we all looked out for each other. I think that it wasn't until I moved to the U.S that I realized that my childhood and life in Beirut had not been normal. I lost a lot during the war- friends and family members, and a chance to have a normal life. But when the whole country is living that way, you understand that you aren't special and that you have to survive in the very best way that you can.

With respect to living in the U.S, it came very naturally. I had visited the U.S before I moved to DC, and was very familiar with American culture. I had studied at an American school in Beirut and was able to speak English very well and so in that respect, there was no barrier. When you move so much (I have also lived in Malaysia for over a year) you realize that in the end we are all people and are very much the same.
Colossus, 2007. Acrylic on Canvas, 24"x60"

BS: Reem, war and the outcome of war has had an impact on your artistic direction. Can you explain this influence to our readers? What are your thoughts on war?

RB: I have very strong feelings about war. Even though, as I mentioned before, you get used to living in a war, that doesn't make the memories of war any sweeter. War is a horrible, horrible thing. The things one sees and experiences are unnatural things that should never be experienced.

For a very long time I resisted introducing the subject of war in my work. I think I was still struggling with my memories of it... Finally, little by little, it crept slowly and very indirectly into the work before it took center stage. In my earlier paintings, it was more subtly introduced whereas in my most recent work, the warzones are clearly shown. In my recent work, I felt like I finally had arrived at a place where I can make the statement that I wanted to make with respect to war and it felt natural and unforced. I think that I am angrier than ever that in this day and age wars are still being waged, and painting is the only way I can fully covey that.
That said, once you get yourself involved in the act of painting, you get lost in the shapes and lines and decision-making that make a painting, and you temporarily forget the subject that lies behind the image. It's tricky though because the strong feelings that I have towards war are great determinants of the mark- so I mustn't completely allow the image to take precedence over the idea behind it.
CocaCola Warscape, 2008. Acrylic on Canvas. 24"x30"

BS: Can you tell us more about your warscape series and the social implications of these works?

RB: I started the warscape series in 2006. It was long overdue. I work from pictures taken in Lebanon only. I have to specify, my experience is limited to war in Beirut, so I do not use images taken in other warzones. Though the outcome of the painting is a general statement on war, I feel like I can't read pictures from foreign warzones like I can from my own country. When you know the neighborhoods, the street signs, the roads, it makes the experience a little more real. Since I am not copying the picture but rather using it as a means, it is important for me that I know the warscape that I am painting.

These paintings may make a small dent, or not at all. That's not entirely up to me. I have little choice but to make these works. I think that at the end of the day, if anyone sees the work, maybe, just maybe they can educate people on the horrors of war.
Downtown, 2008. Acrylic on Canvas, 44"x44"
BS: Would you say that there is a spiritual aspect to your work?

RB: I hope so. The works by other artists that most move me are ones that offer more than just a technically sound image. I don't think we can deny that aspect of ourselves as people, and so it has to surface in the work.

BS: Discuss some of your other influences. For example, are you influenced by any specific artist?

RB: My favorite has always been Alberto Giacometti. From the Abstract Expressionist era, I love Willem DeKooning, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchel. Favorite contemporary artists are Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Cecily Brown, Nicola Lopez and Sarah Sze.
Skoot, 2008. Mixed Media on paper and Drafting Film, 22"30"

BS: Reem, what are you working on at this time?

RB: The warscapes, still. I think this series will be an ongoing one for quite some time... The only new thing I am experimenting with within the series is extending beyond the surface of the paper or canvas and making the composition much less predictable, as it would in fact be in a real warscape.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

RB: Not much else. I have said a lot already.
You can learn more about Reem Bassous by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

Impressive art.

Having grown up in a bombed out WWII submarine naval base, I can relate to the horrors of destruction shown in these pictures.

Healing will come!

Anonymous said...

It is honest, that is a very nice and refreshing virtue. But lacks depth, of history, layers of conflict, which art truly is, finding resolution of seemingly opposite ideas. It is academic, and illustration, nicely done, but not very deep. Not Goya, or involved in life. It is all buildings, Bombed out, and therfore not about others, but ones own feelings.

Too many influences of artists, how about family, country, politics, music, life? I dont feel it throbbing, or destroyed, as Anselm Kiefer does. The sadness of passion, the worked out levels of emotions and pain.

This is like a skeleton, a framework for more that may come. Flesh it out, make it breath, give it blood, brains, anger, joy. and it will live. Not a bad beginning. like I said, refreshing.