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What You Can’t See: Interviews with the Art of Aglaé Bassens and Eric Oglander
“I didn’t want to come out with this straight away” I tell her, “but I have to say that I find your paintings desperately, desperately sad.”
Aglaé Bassens turns to me in her studio and smiles broadly for the first time, and I see delight in her eyes. At first I think that she is laughing at me—I haven’t seen her smile before, and from a pert mouth an unusually large number of teeth are revealed in a sharp, broad grin with a mischievous, almost maniacal edge to it. But it is a true smile, not a sneer. She’s delighted, it seems, that she has translated emotion through her work, and her somewhat startling grin is the privilege granted for my efforts at understanding. One sometimes hears in Aglaé’s voice odd traces of her Belgian and French nationality. When they emerge, and in admixture with the occasional glottal stops of her English, she sounds closest to a Flamande brought up here. But for the most part she seems to have plucked out and somehow retained the very essence of a mid-90s London demotic—something like the English spoken by Craig Charles—and which must have set before she went to Oxford. In these tones she replies to me, after the flash of her smile:
“So you noticed that? I tried to disguise it in the aquarium paintings with more colours and a brighter palette. Obviously I didn’t do it so well.”
Eric Oglander’s face appears in my computer. It exists against a background entirely blank but for one of his sculptures, which must be hanging on the wall behind him; a carved wooden thing that looks both ergonomic and useless. He is ethereally handsome, with the elfin bone structure of a catwalk model, but seems too dreamy for it to matter much to him. His lips look, through the monitor, thin, flat, and barely there, but it his hands that catch my attention most. His fingers are long yet remarkably blunt at the ends, and his hands have the strange mixture of grace and a clumsiness of motion which comes with a lack of self-consciousness—moving with the dyspraxia of dreaminess, they seem to suggest he is not much used to contact with the solid objects of this solid world. They are like birds restless for flight and which have to be restrained; they mime and punctuate his speech with abstract movements, fluttering into the frame or resting, poised, to grasp the bottom of his chin, where they alight awkwardly for more than a few moments as he thinks and looks upward while he talks. It is towards the end of our interview, and we are discussing his sculptures, which incorporate objects he finds on the street and collects: “the other day, for example, I found this wonderfully braided nylon string” he tells me. As with Aglaé, I go out on a limb. I must sound dithering and hyper-British against his hearty, US plain-speaking when I prevaricate:
“I don’t really know how to ask this Eric, and I don’t think it’s at all absurd—I totally understand that you are being honest and not pretentious when you look for and attend to such things—but there aren’t that many contexts in which one could use the phrase ‘wonderfully braided nylon string’ without it sounding kind of ridiculous. I certainly don’t think it is, but I imagine that if I was doing what you do I would sometimes be aware that, in the grand scheme of things and to others, talking like that about a piece of string could feel sometimes kind of absurd.”
“It absolutely feels ridiculous, a lot of the time” he says. “I think that the romanticisation of artists is absurd, totally, and I often feel like, what am I contributing? I’m not really producing anything. When I first started doing the mirrors project it felt like a waste of time to me.”
These are two artists who are willing to admit, and admit to, emptiness. Last week I interviewed Aglaé Bassens, a painter and a graduate of both The Slade and The University of Oxford, in her studio in Stratford; and Eric Oglander, a collector and sculptor living in New York, and the man responsible for craigslistmirrors.com, whom I interviewed on Skype from my study. These are two accomplished artists who have deservedly won recent media attention, and are beginning what I hope will be significant ascent; Aglaé was selected by Kurt Beers for his book 100 Painters of Tomorrow (2014), and Eric’s viral blog garnered media attention from Jerry Saltz at The New York Times, Vice Motherboard, and the Washington Post amongst others. Both will be exhibiting at the Revue Galley in a joint show from the 25th of February, and despite never having met each other in person they are, as I would discover, an excellent pairing.
Aglaé’s studio is in East London, just south of the Olympic Stadium, and the location is fitting. The vast, empty concrete spaces; the clipped grassy lawns and knolls outlined so rectilinear as to flaunt their artificiality; the washed-out, watercolour palette of greys and blues. There is no sprawl of messy, Hogarthian life, as in the older sections of the city, to be found here—just an industrial blank canvas that drains me as I walk along an overpass in the cold wind, passed by cars, cars, cars, and with nothing remarkable to hold my gaze, or on which to fix my eyes. This part of East London is, for me, the reification of boredom—or something worse than boredom, because it’s active upon you; not a lack of presence, but the presence of aggressive emptiness.
Some of Aglaé’s paintings are like that. The one I find happiest, because calm—or least desperately sad—is called Don’t Look Back. It depicts a rear view mirror from inside a car, the stripes of the rear-window’s heating elements reflected therein, and the raindrops on the front windscreen behind. She has captured an effect particular to cameras—the blurring into abstraction of what is behind glass when the lens is focussed on water on the pane itself—but despite the thick black lines delineating the rim of the mirror and the heating elements caught within it, the whole scene is made oleaginous; watered into abstraction; floating. I ask her why she seemed deliberately to have rendered these lines wobbly, when in reality they are straight. “I wanted to make sure that there was nowhere for the eyes to rest onto” she responds. There’s something featureless about this piece—like the landscape I walked through to get to it—and all that can be seen in the painting are things that are meant to be seen through: glass and a mirror.
And yet, here at least, there’s also something Zen—there’s some redemption in the solace implied in this scene. The inside of a car; warm and protected from the rain without; the eyes slipping out of focus on a long journey to dream at the water on the windscreen; it not yet raining hard enough to lead you to break trance and turn on the wipers, or if it is the rain is yet too captivating, too curious. Aglaé describes to me the feeling she was trying to evoke; the boredom, the mental emptiness and the slipping into automatic that can occur on a long drive. It has the transcendence of between-places, free from the duties of departure or the pressures of arrival. And there is redemption, here, through talent too, and as in all of Aglaé’s paintings, because her technique is so painterly; not all sense of value is drained from a world when it is delineated as deftly as this. The effect of the droplets on the pane has been achieved by what looks like a very, deliberately wet brush—by allowing that water to run and spread the colour outward less densely, to form the thinnest lines of gradated pigment at the perimeter of each ragged circle, like a chromatography test, just as droplets spread the colours in light at their meniscus and concentrate it at their edges. Indeed, I ask her what media it’s been painted in, and she tells me that it’s the only one of her paintings to use acrylics as well as oil. Oil and spirit alone don’t spread like that; you need water to paint water this way.
One definition of a state of enlightenment sometimes called ‘Zen’, though others may call it by other names (in religion, ‘grace’; in sport, ‘flow’), is as a state physical, mental or spiritual effortlessness commensurate with self-forgetting, with the loss of consciousness of self. It is the effortless movements your body seems to make before thought (professional tennis players, to take just one example, start moving towards where their opponents will send the ball before it has been hit)—or whatever is the opposite of choking. In more prosaic experience, it’s the difference between walking the street naturally, fluidly, and the walk that comes with noticing there is someone attractive behind you who may be watching; the sudden self-consciousness which relegates the movement of your limbs to your conscious mind, and which has long forgotten how to arrange them—the sudden jelly-like limbs, the awkwardness of a walk that suddenly becomes affected. Aglaé’s paintings seem to me to share something of the effortlessness that comes with self-abnegation. During our interview she mentions that her boyfriend has recently begun Transcendental Meditation; I once learnt it too, so we’re able to discuss it. I offer my opinion: that it can induce this state of self-forgetting in a way that might be beneficial for those who can’t get it any other way; who have never played a musical instrument to a high level, or written under inspiration, or reached the degree of creative mastery in any pursuit that brings an end to thought. Or, I suggest, even if they have, it might yet be useful for those who don’t get the chance to access the mental states of that mastery in their daily lives. Aglaé agrees; “I get that for hours when I am painting, and I come back home from the studio at the end of the day and I am refreshed.”
I mention all of this because it tells in the way she paints. Most of her paintings—she has a series of pictures of empty aquarium tanks—are painted in what seem to be single strokes; just a single, translucent coat. I ask her how she achieves the effect of painting in single strokes. “I paint them in single strokes” she replies. Not here the self-conscious, fiddly detailing of a cramped master of the minute, but a style ultimately open, graceful, effortless. And I mention all of this, too, because it tells in what she paints. It would be crass and miss the point to call them symbols; Aglaé’s pictures of empty aquarium tanks don’t stand for emptiness, they are empty—these aren’t empty pictures, but pictures of emptiness. In an aquarium one expects to see sea life in glass tanks, often framed as squares in the wall, arrayed in grids and rows—but one occasionally encounters that odd experience, common also to visiting zoos, where the animal cannot be spotted. Is it hiding, reluctant to be seen, defying its framing, or are we too myopic, untrained, to see it? Or is it, in fact, not there at all? There are different kinds of apparent emptiness, or of making emptiness apparent. Aglaé’s pictures seem to reify the thing.
And they operate, accordingly, at an almost invisible remove from their subjects. Some of Aglaé’s paintings are of individual aquariums, but some are of tanks in grids—as they exist in the walls of aquariums—with the columns at some point coming out of alignment slightly, like wallpaper badly pasted so the seams don’t match up and the patterns aren’t level. And when they become wallpaper, rather than individual aquariums, these are not longer pictures of emptiness, but pictures of pictures of emptiness—a further step back. Their particular visual snag—the misalignment of the ‘sheets’ of wallpaper—and its disturbance of the repeated patterns, is visually unsettling, jarring. And its effect here and in her other wallpapers—of cowboys lassoing cowboys lassoing cowboys—is to induce nystagmic saccades, frustrating the eye expectant of pattern. The cowboys, you might think, aren’t quite such empty subjects, but unlike the tanks they’re repeated identically, and Aglaé obfuscates any actual subject once again by stripping it of significance by repetition, like saying a word so many times that it loses all sense of meaning. There is only a very fine difference between painting wallpaper and a painting of wallpaper: the distance given to a subject of art shaved until it is razor-thin; until the line between painting something and a painting of something becomes as barely-there as Aglaé’s single strokes.
And this line which Aglaé articulates by pulling it so thin is also investigated by Eric. But whereas Aglaé is at least present (albeit slimly) in her brushstrokes, Eric effects a complete abnegation of self in all but spirit from his works. Both these artists seem to work to make themselves so thin, almost, it seems, willing themselves to disappear. For Eric has created a work in which he only exists as guiding force—there is no single one of the pictures of mirrors which Eric has selected from craigslist.com to display on his blog in which his creative spirit is visible. Indeed, if he had only selected one picture, the work would not exist at all; one would not be able to work out why he had chosen it, like being given only one number in a mathematical sequence. It would just be a picture with a mirror in it, not a picture of a mirror. One can only begin to work out the rule (or rules) to a sequence with more information; the only impression that can be garnered of Eric’s aesthetic standards and artistic practice is not in any picture itself but in the similarities between those he has chosen. Eric is not visible in the pictures; only in the space between them and behind them.
Further, the auteurs of Eric’s pictures—the cameramen and women themselves—also attempt, often, to obfuscate themselves and their own roles, their own authorship or presence in the pictures. Some feature the photographers, unable to help being caught in the mirror they are photographing, covering themselves to retain or attempt anonymity. A camera flash occluding a face; a cameraphone held across the eyes like the black stripe in ‘censored’ photographs; one mirror with the reflection whited out by a text box that reads “THE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN REMOVED FROM THE PICTURE THE MIRROR IS IN PERFECT CONDITION” And then one reason, Eric speculates, why many take pictures of their mirrors outside is to avoid displaying the interiors of their homes. Ironically, it’s their attempts to hide that often draw them into the spotlight of Eric’s examination.
But these are not all or only portraits of anonymity; others are anonymous portraits. In one an ambiguously-gendered figure, but with an oily raggedness to his or her strawberry blonde hair that can only have come with age, is caught photographing a mirror on which the word “Cocaine” in ostentatious cursive is repeated nine times with something of the meaningless, fidgety obsessiveness that the drug itself can induce. Whatever was snow white in this picture, however, has darkened to grey, and the only highlights are the near-identical dirty pinks of the photographer’s shirt, phone, and the discarded garment behind the mirror itself. Who is this person? Does the sale of the ‘Cocaine’ mirror indicate the renunciation of a favourite pastime, a faded youth? Was this a mirror on which the drug itself was once cut and taken by this individual—this individual whose only signal feature serves only to indicate that they are old? And whom does this person expect to buy it? Are we witnesses to the passing of a torch?
Other pictures show the drab interiors of the homes of the American poor—Eric is not the only one behind the selection of pictures he provides, because there are limiting factors to their arrival on Craigslist in the first place: few millionaires will be selling mirrors. Indeed in many the poor photography itself seems to be the spectacle—else the bizarre, sometimes incomprehensible choices of the pictures’ makers. In one a man sits hunched before a pair of mirrors in his socks, his strabismic gaze lost in a middle distance we cannot see. Is this to give an idea of scale, or in a desperate attempt to be seen, or out of some unconscious iota of the instinct to vanity? Whatever it is, this man is poor of something.
But whilst all the pictures are portraits of both the choices made by Eric and those made by their auteurs, not all of the pictures depict the individuals they imply as subjects. Some show, instead, the startling juxtapositions that mirrors can create; one frames a bright green forest astonishingly leaning against the side of a beaten grey sedan. Others are more abstracted (though that would seem oxymoronic to say of photographs); one shows a mirror only visible as a slight modulation of form and colour, the photograph seemingly interested most in arrangements thereof, like a Rothko. Others yet capture the spirit of an Escher, perhaps the ultimate in endless reflexivity: mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors, with just a hand, a hand, a hand holding their top edges (or are they many hands, many mirrors?). Further, reflections are one of the few ways in which a picture can imply the space that exists outside the space within its own trompe-l’œil; in the logic of art as realist illusion, a mirror in a picture facing the viewer ought to reflect the space occupied by that viewer. But we appear in none of Eric’s pictures as we look at them, and neither, in this way, does he. One leaves with the impression he’s not only trying to ghost himself but to ghost us, somehow, as well.
Reflexivity; advertised, ironic self-consciousness; self-aware humour that deprecates; these are the badges of sophistication in an arch modern world. At first glance, Eric seems hip, even hipster—for what could be more symbolic of this kind of arch stance, of a wry, traditionalist-mocking cynicism than a mirror? It would be easy to read Eric’s blog as the newest throwaway gesture of a jaded, anti-establishment youth; the value-eschewing reflex action of a scenester sick even of the dregs of the revolutionary artistic Marxism bequeathed him by the 20th century. Who thinks Friends as worthy of study as Shakespeare. Who rips secondhand pictures of secondhand mirrors off the internet, and calls the endeavour as worthy of the name of art as the achievements of a Michelangelo or a Caravaggio. That would be the easy reading—but too easy, and wrong.
There is humour here, certainly, but Eric is not only too intelligent, but too obsessed with actual investigation, to create art that is throwaway, or throws away merely. For Eric, there is little funny about it, and the more I speak to him the more I realise that he is an odd chap—the more I am certain that he would still be sifting through mirrors on Craigslist if he were the only man left alive. Any humour in his almost never schadenfreude, but sensitive and curious about human weakness; we are all, the collection seems to say, flawed and fallen. He might have recently begun to find a kind of fame, but it matters little to him; he is too sensitive to the fact that he and his endeavours look absurd under the sky to come to believe his own hype, and he clearly never meant to go viral, nor thinks about things like that at all; this is pure compulsion. He collects arrowheads; used to collect reptiles; had to stop aggregating pythons when he was in possession of fourteen simply because he ran out of room; he has to restrain himself from searching, not make himself search, for mirrors on Craigslist, or he ends up sucked into it for hours.
Aglaé and Eric have much in common—a startling amount really—and in particular a sensibility of the pointless. But there is one aspect of their sensibility in which they differ: Aglaé seems more resigned to the emptiness, Eric more frustrated, still striving to fill it. Perhaps each has something to learn from the other. Both though, I aver, are honest. “I’ve never applied logic, concept to these things that I make” Eric tells me on Skype, which seems a fitting vehicle for an interview with a man who creates art from and on the internet. “But by virtue of being a human and staying honest about what I’m attracted to I think it resonates with people.” For him and Aglaé both, I think it does.