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Lessons from the book of Yonah

Encountering the Void

Tirtzah Bassel

The “whale” is the first place where Jonah finds himself entirely alone. Large but finite, Jonah’s fish is a way of marking the borders between inside and outside, separation and submersion, life and death, magic and real. In this womb-like space, Jonah, for the first time, discovers his will to live, and his desire takes the form of poetry. Unlike the prophecy that Jonah was sent to deliver, the words of his song, “out of the belly of the nether-world cried I, and Thou heardest my voice,” (Jonah 2:3) stem from his personal experience and are marked by an urgency to communicate with something beyond his own self. And unlike his other communications with God and man, this passage ventures beyond the transmission of information and into the realm of creative expression. More significant than the words is his decision to use a poetic form. The terrifying encounter with the void in the belly of the fish pushes Jonah beyond survival toward creative endeavor.

In my recent work, I have been exploring crowded places where we find ourselves completely alone. In the drawing “Turnstile,” a fragmented body engages with a gate-like or skeletal subway entrance. The series “TSA” suggests the tension between intimacy and vulnerability, between eroticism and violence, in the prescribed encounter with security.

As an artist, I am inspired by these dichotomies and also aware of the aloneness that drives my work — an aloneness inherent to the creative process. To use Jonah’s images, my daily experience in the studio oscillates between the “aloneness of the belly of the ship” and the “aloneness of the belly of the fish.” As I mix the colors on my palette and apply paint to the canvas, I sometimes feel sluggish and lost, and I doubt that these actions will bear any meaning or the power to communicate. This is the belly of the ship, the experience of feeling alone amid people — feeling such apathy in the face of a task that I lose the desire to try. It is hiding and waiting for someone outside to come wake me up. Other times, two spots of color suddenly reveal a figure; a piece of duct tape takes on the form of a man’s head. This is the belly of the whale, an intimate encounter with the edge of what I know. In this place, though the techniques I have mastered may feel inadequate to the new situation, I feel pushed to tap into new and unknown resources. This is the place where all the boundaries and constraints of the medium suddenly give form to something new, fresh, and unexpected. Beyond subject matter and formal questions, it is this sense of mystery and otherness that is at the core of what a painting communicates when it comes from the belly of the whale. From that belly, the work speaks of the void that we dread so intently and also of our desire to return to the voice and be awakened.

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Tirtzah Bassel is an Israeli artist currently living and working in New York. She works in oil, intaglio, and digital sketch apps. Bassel studied drawing and painting at the Jerusalem Studio School in Israel, and she has a master’s degree in fine arts from Boston University. Her work has been exhibited in Israel, Europe, and the United States. Bassel is the recipient of a 2011-2012 LABA Fellowship from LABA: House of Study, a beit midrash at the 14th Street Y in New York. She currently serves as a resident artist of the chashama Visual Arts Program in Brooklyn, and her work can be viewed at tirtzahbassel.com.


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