Reem Bassous’s solo show Beyond the Archive: Paintings by Reem Bassous opens Dec. 3. Since February she’s been working on 10 large canvases, guided by Healoha Johnston, our curator of the arts of Hawai‘i. (Pictured above, from left, are Johnston and Bassous.) We caught up with Bassous in her studio at the University of Hawai‘i in May, and in September we paid her a follow-up visit to photograph some of her paintings and ask a few questions as she was finishing up the series.

How is preparation going since we spoke in May?
I did go home this summer—to Beirut and Cyprus. I had six weeks off and it was great because I came back with so much more clarity. I needed to step away. I’m a little worried that when the paintings go to the museum I’m going to lose my time with paintings of this scale. It’s something I’ve become quite addicted to. It’s not to say I can’t continue—I have a show in January at Koa Gallery, so I’m continually working, but it’s a drawing show and this is painting, something I’m quite attached to. I have a lot of mixed feelings at the moment.

I’m very glad to have been given carte blanche to just paint. I’ve come such a long way conceptually with the work as only a show like this could pressure you to do. Healoha has challenged me in all the right ways. It’s very important that I seriously trust her. It’s really interesting because a few times she would say something and I would completely disagree in my mind, but because I trusted her so much I was open-minded about giving it a shot. And of course she was right every time. It challenged me and took me down paths that I would not necessarily have ventured down. That’s what a good relationship between artist and curator can be.

"Us and Them" by Reem Bassous.

“Us and Them” by Reem Bassous.

Back in May, you were still exploring how to present figures in your new paintings. How did that go?
My concern was that I couldn’t initially find the identity of these figures. I don’t mean their identity as who they are as individuals but in terms of what is their role in these paintings. I wanted them there and did not back away from the challenge. It wasn’t until after I got back from summer vacation and I was working on the final two paintings that I realized that [the figures’] presence is so much about that tension where they are at threat of being destroyed at any moment, and this destruction, or elimination, can come through paint application or through actual destruction, as in those people who have existed in Beirut. So it became very much about the tension of the figure being here but not really being here and the paint is a constant violent act threatening its presence by obliteration. So it became the challenge—how do you allow the paint do what it needs to do in order for you not to compromise the structural integrity of the figure itself and not force that destruction but also to have it be aesthetically something that is sitting well on the canvas and ultimately have something new emerge.

I’m not really interested in making figure paintings for figures—it has to be something more. I don’t always know what that is and I’m interested in showing the figure in a new way and I really can’t say that I’ve completely succeeded but I feel like I’ve started to understand how I can do it.