This post originally appeared on the LAIP in February 2016.
Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
Aileen Bassis (AB): I’ve always made art. I remember fixing up other children’s pictures when I was in kindergarten and pleaded with my mother for extra art lessons when I was in junior high school. I was terribly thrilled to be admitted to the H.S. of Music and Art in NYC (now LaGuardia High School). I studied drawing, painting and printmaking at SUNY at Binghamton, NY and went to Hunter College for an MA in Creative Art.
I was drawn to social and political subjects, beginning with a series about the AIDS virus. I was incorporating text into my collages, which led me to make artists’ books
I became really interested in conceptual art while in graduate school and started to work in 35 mm photography. My husband had a darkroom then and I became involved in printing and doing a lot of print manipulation and photo collage. As time went on, I was drawn to social and political subjects, beginning with a series about the AIDS virus. I was incorporating text into my collages, which led me to make artists’ books, a natural fit for my interest in combining words and image. Around the same time, my art practice expanded into photo-based printmaking like paper lithography, transfer printing and photopolymer etching. I have a large library of my own photos that I use in different combinations to address subjects that have included The Holocaust, racial disparities, muslim identity, immigrants, multiculturalism in Europe, and income inequality.
LAIP: What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
AB: Last fall, I went the Printed Matter Artists Book Fair at MOMA PS1 in NYC. I saw some lovely books printed on risograph machines and heard about a new risograph workshop that was opening up at the School of Visual Arts. I signed up for a workshop there and fell in love with the process and results. I’ve made two books using the risograph, and I’m making another book now that I hope will be completed by June for “Unpacking the 21st Century: Artists Engaging the World,” an exhibition at the Westbeth Gallery in NYC. I curated the show and there are four other artists exhibiting. I’m showing work from a series, “Homilies for the 99%,” combining urban street images with text and images of books by Horatio Alger.
LAIP: How do you see your work interacting with narrative or story? What does working with books allow you to do that you can’t pull off with other media?
AB: I love the time-based aspect of artists’ books, the intrinsically slow reveal that forces the viewer into an experience. You can’t assimilate an artists’ book in a glance. It’s a physical experience, you must turn a page, there’s a before and after, a sense of a beginning and an end. And since books are often small-scale (compared to large paintings or installations) it has a personal aspect and an intrinsic intimacy.
I love the time-based aspect of artists’ books, the intrinsically slow reveal that forces the viewer into an experience.
LAIP: How have libraries informed your creative work? Tell us about the first library you remember playing a part in your artistic development.
AB: I always loved reading — my family didn’t buy books, but I visited our neighborhood library weekly. I remember there was a six-book limit. I went to the Highbridge Library in the Bronx (that building isn’t there anymore) and to get an adult library card, you had to write your full name in script in a big lined ledger. I vividly remember signing my name in it and being thrilled that I was in the grown-up library and no longer with the little kids reading picture books in the children’s room. Being able to check-out big wordy books came in handy when my fourth grade teacher caught me with an open book hidden under my desk. I was reading instead of paying attention in class and she banished (yes, she used the word banished) me from class for a week. I had to sit in the back and couldn’t do anything with the class, just read. I went to the library and took out six books; I was set for the week.
LAIP: Can you describe a particular library-incubated project for us?
AB: In 2008, like many, I was riveted by the presidential election and Obama’s campaign. I was disturbed by the racism that his candidacy revealed. That got me thinking about the insidious legacy of slavery in the United States. I decided to make art on the subject and used the Library of Congress website to research first-person accounts by slaves and people who interacted with slaves. Fragments of these texts appeared in a group of artists’ books, collages and etchings.
LAIP: As an artist, what would your ideal library be like? What kinds of stuff would you be able to check out, and what could you do there?
AB: My ideal library would be open from morning into night seven days a week, with lots of comfy chairs and sofas and tables for big art books. There’d be large copiers that could copy pages without damaging the book binding. There would be lots of poetry (I also write poetry) and books in translation (which are sometimes hard to find in my library). I would leaf through art books and read poetry and make notes for myself and perhaps doze in a big armchair. No one would say “Shush!” but everyone would be quiet and no one could use a cell-phone.
My ideal library would be open from morning into night seven days a week, with lots of comfy chairs and sofas and tables for big art books
Aileen Bassis is native of New York City who now lives in New Jersey. She holds a BA in studio art from SUNY Binghamton and an MA in creative art from Hunter College. She has been awarded multiple artist residencies including the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Frans Masereel Center in Belgium and a Dodge fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center. She has received a fellowship from the NJ State Council on the Arts and a grant from the Puffin Foundation. Widely exhibited in galleries and universities, Bassis has had solo shows at Rutgers University, Moravian College, University of Pennsylvania and Ohio University. Her work is in the collections of Wellesley, Dartmouth and Lafayette Colleges, the Newark Public Library, the NY Public Library, Franklin Furnace, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, St. Stephen Museum, Hungary, and the Nelimarkka Museum, Finland.
Aileen’s art can be viewed at www.aileenbassis.comPin It