Tirtzah Bassel: Canon in Drag
On ViewSlag Gallery
Canon in Drag
October 27–December 3, 2022
Visitors will likely come to Tirtzah Bassel’s exciting new exhibition Canon in Drag with an expectation of gender inversion and playful camp—and Bassel doesn’t disappoint. We find Sandro Botticelli’s famous Venus transformed into a toned male nude with a curly strawberry blonde beard, while Rogier van der Weyden’s Christ on the Cross not only menstruates but exposes ample breasts. In coming downtown from MoMA, Picasso’s Demoiselles have metamorphosed into sensual boys with enormous swinging dicks. The art lover ready to shout “Look what she’s done to this one!” will find great fun in first identifying Bassel’s references and second spotting her cheeky tweaks to the most significant masterpieces in the history of Western art. Like the drag shows its name evokes, Canon in Drag boasts wit, showmanship, humor, and especially satire.
But from one seemingly simple gender flip, far greater transformations follow. It’s not just that women become men and men become women; the naturalistic style of the Renaissance, too, yields to Bassel’s sketchier and more energetic touch, a painterly style that highlights the artist’s dramatic transformations of canonical subject matter. Men are not made more femme as they become the erotic objects of the artist’s gaze, but in fact grow larger penises—a taboo in our Western visual culture. In an extraordinary homage to Goya, the Saturn Bassel depicts in Mother Severing the Umbilical Cord (after Francisco Goya) (2021) births rather than eats her child. Putting the canon in drag, evidently, transforms death into life. What initially reads as a simple binary inversion in fact generates a world imagined entirely otherwise. Here the manly men are nurturing caregivers, their huge cocks repeatedly compared to nursing bottles, as in Origin of the Milky Way (after Peter Paul Rubens) (2020) and Father and Son (2022). These paintings of mother bulls are, perhaps, the only images of men idealized as caregivers that I have ever seen. On the flip side, the blood of salvation, spilled on the cross, becomes menstrual blood. The Mother Jesus of Bassel’s take on van der Weyden suggests that bleeding female bodies are likewise ideal as nurturing bodies. As Bassel imagines the first human body, Adam’s, to be an intersex one in Born This Way (After Michelangelo) (2020), Canon creates a space in which all human bodies are potentially more animated, more sexy, and more fruitful than our own poor bodies, subject to Western cultural and visual norms. More than put the canon in drag, Bassel creates a queer new world.
Bassel’s La Menarquia or The Menarche (after Diego Velázquez) (2022), a reinterpretation of the iconic Las Meninas (1656) offers, perhaps, the most developed vision of this other world, in which menstruation is understood as an act of creative agency. In premodern Europe, menstrual blood was associated with the basilisk. Blood was understood to build up behind a menstruating woman’s eyes and could potentially poison someone or even dull a mirror via the venomous gaze. This misogynistic view of women’s bodies becomes grist for Bassel’s imaginative mill. The princess, having become an adult (a menstruant in the exhibition catalogue’s terms), wears a red conical headdress that focuses her gaze on the viewer. Las Meninas is perennially interpreted as a reflection on the position of the court artist because Velázquez looks out from behind his canvas to become the subject of his own painting, usurping the position of the king and queen, who appear only dimly reflected in a mirror. But in Bassel’s other world, the menstruant herself appears in the mirror as the subject of the painter’s work and boldly holds the architect’s compass, the traditional symbol in premodern art of God’s creative power to form the new universe; a spherical astrolabe appears just behind her head. In premodern anatomical theory, menstrual blood was also the raw matter that created human bodies in utero. Here, the menstrual gaze, rather than dulling a mirror, becomes creativity itself: artistic vision. Blood, thickly gathered on the artist’s brush, is the paint that creates Bassel’s new imaginary universe. Kings and queens, altogether absent in this image, may yet rule the “real” world, but here a girl’s first period endows her with creative authority over a new one. And what a fun world it is—complete with French fashions inspired by Louise Bourgeois and Comme Des Garçons.
Bassel’s new world offers visitors a chance to see their own reality anew. It was not until viewing Canon that I realized the fact that birthing is a visual taboo in Western art history. Canon's six images of birthing women, including the aforementioned Saturn, challenge viewers to wonder why it is that birth should be so very rarely encountered in our own visual culture, just as the tender images of fatherhood found here warmly welcome men to take up tenderness as a largely unvisualized masculine ideal. Crucially, Canon tells us more than what the “real” West isn’t—the show reveals how queer it’s been all along. Born This Way (after Michelangelo Buonarroti) (2020) embraces the platonic myth that the first human was, in fact, intersex, a reading also implicit in the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 1:27) and expanded in midrash. Bassel’s revision of Botticelli’s Venus highlights the late-antique tradition of the Venus barbata (bearded Venus), and her invocation of Christ on the Cross visualizes the rapturous texts of medieval women mystics, who imagined Christ’s bleeding side-wound to be a lactating breast or even a bloody womb. Bassel’s artworks center a queerness that has always been present throughout Western history, but one rendered marginal by the canon’s relentless repetitions of a circumscribed set of gender and pictorial norms. Ultimately, then, Bassel reveals not only an imaginary West but also several western roads not taken, ones that the West could travel now. Visitors who follow Bassel there will be rewarded with playful humor and learned critique. Canon in Drag is a bravura performance of queer art history.