Eloise Ghioni: A Guide to Benefits is the title of your recent solo show at Anat Ebgi in Los Angeles. The press release makes it clear that this is not simply a painting exhibition, but rather that painting is a medium used to compose a complex message. In fact, the archetypal symbols – in this case a reference to consumer culture – add up to abstraction in your paintings, which ultimately generates an impressive result.
How do you combine these two forms of expression?
Martin Basher: Since I started making art in the early 2000’s I’ve always been interested in the possibilities that arise when painting and sculpture meet. Generally, I find it’s a richer terrain when paintings have to act in the realm of objects. When painting exists in a vacuum, it primarily reads in terms of image, not object. But when painting is bought into a sculptural conversation, the paintings become objects too, things that we can read more legibly as products of place, time and circumstance. And when paintings exist in a sculptural space that is dealing with consumer culture specifically, one must read their images as commodified. Moreover, one must then understand the paintings themselves as commodities. In this respect, I think of the paintings as being in continuum with the consumer goods and material in the sculpture. There are various cultural registers at work (high culture/mass culture, expensive/cheap, refined/crude) but they all operate in a nexus of commodity and desire.
EG: There seems to be a strong Pop element typical of the 1980s in your work – although at first glance the formal rigor of your lines suggests the opposite. The perception, it would seem, is that you have personally experienced those years. What memories do you have of that time? And to what extent do you think it has influenced your style?
MB: The extent that I personally experienced those years is limited – I am a child of the ‘80s but for much of that time I lived in semi-rural Fiji. I barely wore shoes between 1985 and 87, and I spent most of my time climbing mango trees and swimming at the beach. My parents weren’t really swinging cosmopolitan types, though I daresay the ‘80s Fijian ex-patriot community must have been quite a happening scene. The period probably had its impact on me mostly via TV, but I’d suggest that the ‘80s quality in the work is primarily owing to its formal lineage, as you note.
You are right that there is a pop element in the work, in particular a late 80’s early ‘90s New York sensibility comprised of those neo/geo/isms that followed neo-expressionism. I certainly see my work indebted to Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, early Jeff Koons, obviously, and Jon Kessler, who I assisted for. He has been a real mentor. Haim Steinbach and without a doubt Cady Noland are big figures for me too. I think much of what links my practice to that time is the overlap with the way those artists were critically evaluating aspects of American consumer culture, in particular by arranging mass-market consumer products and images to construct alternative narratives around consumer psychology. I certainly wouldn’t say my work is nostalgic though. In fact all the objects and images in play in the work are very contemporary – fresh off the Rite-Aid and Nordstroms shelves. Perhaps there is an 80’s-ness in the work because the advertising of that time still had a ribald loucheness to it that I’m also dealing with. Back then you would sell a mens watch with images of booze, a cigar and cleavage – these days you’d sell it with a picture of David Beckham and a mountain. Actually maybe I’m wrong about that – watches still get sold with sex, maybe just with less tobacco and a smaller cup-size. Advertizers know what works, then and now. Sex. Desire. Aspiration. All things in the consumer terrain that I am interested in.
MB: The paintings and sculpture should definitely be read in conversation. As I discussed earlier, the paintings are part of a continuum of objects in the room. I think a good deal about the role of desire in the things we come to possess, and the objects I select for my sculptures are ones that I see having a strong relationship to body image, ego, and the projection of lifestyle. Some items are cheap, like mouthwash, and some are actually very expensive – I have a pair of $800 Giorgio Armani loafers in my current show at Anats, and I had Rolex Submariner in my last show at Starkwhite. All the objects have an aspirational quality to them, one that deals in anxiety about style and public image. What could be a more perfect lifestyle accessory than a big, expensive, one-off painting?
EG: In A Guide to Benefits, the emphasis would seem to be primarily highlighting the stereotypical behavior of the wealthy white male and recreational activities he engages in like drug use, alcohol abuse and easy sex. Do you think this cliché is still valid or is it totally obsolete and say connected to the excesses of the past?
MB: Have you spent any time at an art fair preview recently? That man will be is everywhere you look. If you ask me, rich white men are having their halcyon days, right now! Their proclivities are as bold and excessive as ever, and now the internet adds a twist in that one can have it all doubly easily. The possibilities for exploring desire and recreation are exponential.
That said, it would be simplistic for the work to be read as an indictment of that stereotype. I know many terrific, well adjusted, generous, moral and socially responsible rich white men. I’m a white man, rich by global standards though certainly not by New York standards, and I would certainly hope to be perceived of as the same. Yet this is not to say that the best of us dont still have some fucked up shit in the darkest recesses of our hearts. You, me, everyone. My work is not a portrait, but it could be understood to be pointing to a psychological space that exists in all of us, and especially in a certain male psyche. Advertisers know it, and therapists know it. The work deals in ID and Super Ego, and I’d prefer the space of my exhibtions to be understood as a theaters of possibility rather than character studies.
By the way, I think its interesting that the work is being interpreted as being about white manhood specifically. I do think its a fair assumption that we are dealing here with men. But what does this suggest about the way we construct subjecthood when the basic arrangement of consumer goods itself seems to be racially charged? Are not the psyches of Black, Indian or Asian men also fraught, fragile and base? White men certainly dont have an exclusive monolopy on sex, booze and drugs. Perhaps a certain unremarked ubiquity of whiteness in capitalism seems to be at play. Its slippery….
MB: Although I’ve mostly talked about the ideas behind the work here, there is an enormous part of my practice that is purely, gleefully and intuitively formal. Decisions evolve as I am working on a show; a flash of color on a bottle label might lead to my finding more of that color in other objects, and the color in turn find its way to my paintings. Much of my work has been in the good-time palette of beach-at-sunset photography – a type of image I’ve explored a lot for its associates with holidays and ease and escape. I guess I follow a commercial approach to palate, for I build exhibitions to cohere around their color, like a trade show booth or comsmetics display stand. To get back to your quesiton about how the abstract paintings and consumer goods relate, above and beyond the conceptual basis, the color and surfaces of each element are a means of creating conversation. Its a way of making formally disparate objects come together so that meaning can happen.
EG: The sociological aspect tied to consumerism in your work seems like an an all-pervasive element. Do you believe that art should educate or is it merely a tool for dissemination and / or criticism?
MB: If you make art that has social content you are always going to have to negotiate a path between art which is politically moribund and art which is overly didactic. I have no problem with art in either of these camps per-se, but I certainly want my own work to walk the line – it should be loaded and uncomfortable and charged enough to be just shy of the didactic. I dont need to educate – a smart viewer doesn’t need a lesson – but I’d not be making anything interesting if the work wasnt engaged and unstable, and in some sense political.
Ive often thought about the sublime in relation to my work. I think about the process and procedures of consumerism as a potentially sublime space. But I mention it here because the sublime, as in Edmund Burke’s writing, is the quality of limitless and incomprehension, as opposed to the beautiful, which is comprehensible and defined. Making beautiful things merely affirms us in our status quo – I think art has a responsibility to deal in things that are less than comprehensible.
EG: What is your next challenge?
MB: I’m catching up on reading and correspondence after my most recent show, but soon I’ll be starting a new body of work for a show at Brand New Gallery in Milan towards the end of the year.
Martin Basher was born in Wellington, New Zealand 1979. Lives and works in New York.
© Martin Basher, Eloise Ghioni, all images © Michael Underwood
Courtesy Martin Basher, Anat Ebgi Los Angeles CA
Editing text: Andrew Smaldone
Web Editing: Eloise Ghioni