Profound like ABBA

Alexander Basil’s self-portraits at Nevven in Gothenburg are a bit banal, almost kitschy. At the same time, they harbour something deeply dark.

Alexander Basil, Untitled, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, 2022.

Before going to see Alexander Basil’s exhibition at Nevven in Gothenburg, I looked at some of his works online. The first thing that struck me was how illustrative they are. The colour palette mainly consists of different shades of beige and unwavering paper white. The paintings are free from smudges; there are seemingly no brushstrokes. The lines are sharp and there are no shadows or other attempts at creating three-dimensionality. Reminiscent of safety instruction cards found in airplanes, this style of painting approaches graphic design to the point that it almost begs to ask the question: why is this picture even painted?

Therefore, I was quite surprised to discover the occasional faint trace of a brush, and was almost shocked to see smudges, stains, and even the occasional fingerprint on the sides.  That the most painterly moments – at least, in a romantic sense – are relegated to the sides of the cold and pedantic paintings comes across as a tongue in cheek joke. I realise that the paintings, as well-contained as they might look on the surface, are filled with contradictions. They are both intimate and unsentimental, reclusive and exhibitionistic, defiant and inviting. 

The Arkhangelsk-born painter, who has studied with the likes of Elizabeth Peyton and Daniel Richter, represents a renewed attention to figurative painting. Every work at Nevven is a carefully laboured self-portrait. The artist’s face is sometimes painted onto a human body, sometimes onto objects: candles, a wrist watch, a towel, or a piece of clothing hanging on a drying rack, etc. But it’s not about animating these objects. Rather, Basil’s body is de-solidified into a constant state of flux. In these paintings, the body is anything but a temple. 

As much as I prefer painters who allow for smudging and colours blending into each other on the canvas, the beauty of Basil’s work relies on the clash between his graphic style and the intimate nature of the motifs. The result is an almost forensic approach to self exploration that is detached from any sentiment, but still manages to feel deeply personal. Like sharing trauma, pain, or the happiest moments of your life through the voice of Google translate. 

In a double self-portrait, a small cherub-like figure is entangled with a larger figure with five eyes: four blue and one brown. I read it as a reference to David Bowie. Facing this painting, on the other side of the space, is the largest painting in the show. Here, Basil has painted himself in various ways: lying in a bathtub, in the form of candles, in the room next door, partly as a wine bottle lying on a stove top, and a final cropped iteration of his face appears in the foreground. 

Alexander Basil, Untitled, oil on canvas, 130 x 110 cm, 2022.

As I look closely, I see that the pupils in the large face in the foreground are angel wings. This is one of the most beautiful moments in the whole show, and a possible reference to the heart shaped eyes of Michelangelo’s David. When paired with the mundane boredom of everyday life and filtered through his illustrative style of painting, Basil’s references to mythology, renaissance sculpture, and baroque cherubs combine to form an eclecticism that I read as a queer sensibility. 

Basil reminds us that mixing various aesthetics can serve as a vent or an oxygen mask in a society that insists on maintaining an air pressure too low for us to breathe in. It’s the formation of a language that is our own, which can never be fully decoded or read, which always retains a measure of secrecy. On a surface level, the paintings are a bit banal and almost kitschy. At the same time, they harbour something deeply dark: a flat, bright, chasm. This balancing act between kitsch and darkness is reminiscent of how ABBA, in an album like The Visitors (1981), packaged divorce and the Cold War as easily digested pop. 

Are Basil’s paintings self-absorbed? I would say that a certain level of self-absorption is probably a requirement for making art. I think this manifests as an almost pathological curiosity in oneself, and that this is a crucial driving force behind the desire to make things in the first place. Of course, one could call this being self-absorbed or narcissistic, and I’m sure it is – especially to people who are not artists themselves. This becomes even more explicit with self-portraiture. But Basil just pretends to allow us in on his innermost secrets. Once we try to discern what’s real and what’s not, we realise that one painting is contradicted by the next. He tricks us into asking what’s based on reality and what’s not, while simultaneously forcing the realisation that this question is the most irrelevant of all.

Alexander Basil, The Problem I Did Not Consider, installation view, Nevven Gallery.

– Albin Bergström (f. 1992) is an artist and writer based in Vienna and Gothenburg. He has a Master of Fine Art from Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, and has taken part in readings at, among other places, Kunsthalle Wien and Tanzquartier Wien.