Q & A with Bascha Mon and Gallery Director Laura Moriarty
LM: What artists or movements have had the strongest impact on your work?
BM: Since I have been a working artist for over 40 years, many artists have become important to me. Long before I thought to study art, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and his “Cypress Tree” had a profound effect on me in terms of their color and texture and the compelling appearance that was based on reality, but seemed to be more related to a dream world. Before I started to study in NY at the Art Students League, my influences were limited to Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Bonnard and Cezanne. I was at that time not yet educated in modern art.
At school, I became aware of Egon Shiele who became my idol as a draughtsman and of Kandinsky, whose art and writings affected me profoundly. My drawing teacher, Marshall Glasier, was the first to involve me in the art of the Orient.
As I became more and more involved in experimenting with texture, Dubuffet was probably the artist who gave me permission to proceed. I was in love with the German Expressionists in school – Jawlensky and his brilliant colors; then Soutine and his swirling landscapes. After I left school, my first mature work to be exhibited in NY was compared in a review to Bonnard and Vuillard. I was duly complimented and recognized the influences.
LM: Did these influences change significantly at any point in time?
BM: The Indonesian Tsunami, with its monster waves and horrendous loss of life and livelihoods jolted me out of the personal and into the ‘other’. Until that point my art influences were mainly personal memories and my own life struggles. From that point to now, my art combines my personal passions with a new awareness and emphasis on world events.
Art for me is a confluence of received images such as the art of others, including films; and direct experience: friendship, home, children, travel, personal relationships and working in the studio, alone.
It is difficult to limit one’s influences only to visual artists.
LM: What do mountains represent to you?
BM: Mountains entered my life psychologically and artistically as a child. A friend of my nanny, who was a painter, gave me a wooden box with oil paints; there were tiny tubes; tiny brushes; and a canvas board with a depiction of a mountain that I was to paint. Books and films centered on this theme combined threat and beauty: “Heidi”; Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain”; and Herzog’s “Fitzcarroldo” You should note here, that I had still never seen a mountain except in photos.
Thus mountains became a part of my fantasy life – both alluring and frightening. The concept of a mountain as a threat, a refuge, a barrier to be overcome represented certain aspects of my adult life. All of this is more psychological and literary than visual. I was not actually imagining myself in the mountains. However, after my parents died, I was able to take a 6 week trip to France, alone. This had been the dream of my life and it came true. I drove alone from Paris to the south of France. I crossed the’ massif centrale’ and was forced to drive up and then down the Gorge du Tarn. I do not know when I have ever been so frightened (except on a roller coaster). The road had no room for a car that might come from the other direction and no safety rail. I was incapable of looking at the view. When I reached the bottom, my knees were trembling so that I couldn’t get out of the car. BUT, I had done it. I had crossed a mountain physically and felt a surge of renewal and strength. This accomplishment began to affect my art. I was not painting mountains then, but the joie de vivre of at last being in France and visiting the homes and studios of artists whom I loved. I had been to Mont St. Victoire and to Cezanne’s studio. I brought back with me a small stone taken from the base of that mountain which he had painted so many times.
In 1991, a purchase prize in the Osaka Triennale took me to Japan. I went first to Tokyo. In the bullet train to Osaka, I longed for a view of the sacred Mt. Fuji. The business man in the adjacent seat told me,” it is very unlikely, since Mt. Fuji’s tip is always shrouded in mist.” However he told me when to look – et voila- the majestic mountain appeared. Its beauty had been praised in poems and paintings for generations. My seat-mate told me that such an unlikely sight presaged good fortune in my life. Certainly the trip to Japan proved that fact. The gardens of Kyoto affected me profoundly and on my return, I became a sculptor. I planned and executed a complete Japanese garden, the rocks, bridge, stepping stones, etc. carved from Styrofoam and painted with acrylics.
My research uncovered the famous “Fujito Stone”. The story entranced me and I carved a facsimile of that group – my large mountain rock and then a smaller mountain rock grouping. This period of my artistic life was meditative and spiritual. I do not think that the current, more political work could have had the necessary passion without the earlier Japanese influence. Although it was not in my consciousness at the time, I think that the painting titled “White Mountain” comes closest to my feelings of the imperious and beautiful Mt. Fuji. In my series, this is the mountain under attack. It was shown as an installation, with “Battlefield” on a platform beneath it.
Once I had decided that the imposing mountain of South Waziristan was impossible for me to ignore, all of the above influences became essential to approaching my new subject. I think that without all that came before, I might never have embarked on the series of mountain paintings that are part of this interview. The solo exhibit of “Mountains, Barriers and Poppy Fields” began not with my profound antiwar attitude, but my own psychological disposition in the face of obstacles. For me to become an artist, was at first an insurmountable mountain to be conquered.
LM: Do you find painting a satisfying medium through which to express political concerns?
BM: This is a particularly difficult question, as I do not create paintings expressly to portray my political concerns. Ideas are elicited through images and articles seen in the daily newspapers and then filtered through my artistic imagination. I do not start with a political premise and then decide to “illustrate” it. It might be helpful here to quote from a prominent artist and writer who supplied the essay for my catalog of “Mountains, Barriers and Poppy Fields”, Carl Hazlewood.
He has known my work for over 30 years and is able to elucidate more poetically than I, the varied components of my work.
“Far away from the actual theatre of the Afghan war, in her quiet corner of New Jersey, Bascha Mon has turned landscape tradition, informed by the lessons of modernity, into an effective medium of protest. As Sharon Memis, the Director of the British Council in the United States argued recently, “The arts can play a pivotal role during war or conflict because they encourage understanding between different cultures, helping foster trust, prosperity and stability.” “So, amidst the terror and absurdities, lay the absolute beauty that makes us human. Bascha Mon’s art, luxuriously textured in form and concept, is proof, if such is needed, that contemporary painting, conflicted though it may be, retains the ability to engage our senses, our emotions and intellect as not many other forms of creative endeavor could.” Copyright Carl E. Hazlewood – 2011.
Carl has expressed my views far better and more fluently than I. It is important to me that my works be considered first as art and lastly as a political statement.
LM: Is the response that you get about your work from the art world different from the response you get from the general public?
BM: Critics, Museums, Galleries, etc. can make your work more valuable to collectors. Positive reviews and shows may lead to more exposure. Peer response may be constructive and informed. On the other hand — is the public all that different?
Anyone who takes the time to respond to my work, whether in an email, a phone call, or simply by chatting with me at an opening is making me very happy. I want my art to communicate – if there is a response then it has a profound effect on me –this is very satisfying.
My students — are they the art world or the public or both at the same time? They are of great importance to me. They are the most supportive followers of my work and frequently the ones who purchase my art. Reviews are great, but they are most often only read by other artists. There is seldom any direct feedback. Yes, one wants the attention and the affirmation of the “knowledgeable” art critic. But how often have we, as artists, read reviews of art that we have seen and completely disagreed with the critic’s comments.
Now, let us consider the effect of the Internet. Here one may be exposed to the art world and the general public simultaneously. Facebook actually is a wonderful way to receive feedback from the art world as well as the general public. I have personally benefited from responses from artists all over the world who would not have had any other way to see my art. Websites offer another avenue for people either in the art world or the general public to see my work.
Art is subjective and I think that ANY response is important.
Whether it is critical response or private is not the issue (except when it comes to a dollar valuation created by an auction house). What really matters is that as many people as possible see the work. A bad review is perhaps better than being ignored. We artists are sensitive creatures and being ignored is the hardest part. When our work is on exhibit and people stop and study it and stand and look for a long time, why should it matter if they belong to the art world or the general public? They are looking and maybe caring. We have an audience. Our art is not living alone in our studio. And, even if that is where it stays, we will still continue to make art. Art is our way of life. Art speaks to us. If it can speak to others as well, that is a plus. But, their actions or decisions will not cause us to cease creating.
Here I would like to quote from three important contemporary artists’ interviews:
*William Kentridge “……..make the people who already love what you do your primary audience……”
*Tony Ourlser “…..you have to validate yourself from the inside…..”
*Victoria Vesna “…..The trick is to create art works that actively stand up in an art environment with all the value systems that apply there and still speak to a larger audience.”
So, in conclusion, my feeling is that one must make art of the highest possible quality and not be concerned about the vagaries of the market place or the art world. In the long run, we make art because we must.
An ominous mountain looms between Pakistan and Afghanistan in South Waziristan. Its black and white photo (clipped from the NY Times) hung in my studio for months. It tantalized and provoked me, but could not be ignored. Such direct representation and symbolism had not previously been present in my work. Could I correlate my love of color, texture, light and form with an anti-war attitude using this mountain as a fulcrum?
How freely could I change the original form and color to create a series that might seduce with its beauty and still convey the deplorable meaning – the barrier, both physical and psychological presented by this mountain?
Encaustic paint has been my medium since the workshop taken with Laura Moriarty about 10 years ago. Through this choice, I accepted the challenge to create highly textured work that could have been more easily executed in oil. Challenge beckons to me. I have never physically climbed a mountain– I have a phobia about heights. But, in my art, all dares are possible. In painting or sculpture I may visit places not available to my everyday world. This war, the deaths and maiming of multitudes, brought the same passions to my work as those imparted by the Indonesian Tsunami (and that engendered Tsunami: Loss.) The series evolved leading through the mountains to paintings of conflagration. Next, I broached the dichotomy of beauty in poppies. They lead to further annihilation both by the opium/heroin produced and its byproduct- money. Money tinges all aspects of war. Thus dollar bills entered my work. When collage can add a more tangible and/or provocative aspect, I use it. There are no absolutes or rules to my working life as an artist.. Any medium: painting, sculpture, digital prints, drawings, installations. I will employ them all at one time or another. Just as that majestic and frightening mountain lured me into this series, I remain open to all stimuli that will express my fears and my desires.
Will war ever lead to lasting peace? This unanswered question may continue to influence my art through as yet unimagined and seemingly unrelated forms.
My art cannot change the course of nature or war, but I will persist in a belief in the future. The ambiguity of life extends to the possibilities of art.