Berlin

Alexander Basil, Untitled, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3⁄4 × 94 1⁄2".

Alexander Basil, Untitled, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3⁄4 × 94 1⁄2".

Alexander Basil

Galerie Nagel Draxler | Berlin

Alexander Basil, Untitled, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3⁄4 × 94 1⁄2".

“I used to live in a room full of mirrors / all I could see was me,” sang Jimi Hendrix in 1968. Over the past year and a half of isolation and atomization, most of us have come to know how that feels. Meanwhile, social media continues to normalize the idea of proliferating images of yourself to display to others, and Alexander Basil has known no world without it. (Born in Arkhangel’sk, Russia, in 1997, he turned thirteen the year Instagram launched.) Between those poles sat the clean-lined lockdown paintings in Basil’s exhibition “Claustrophobia,” all Untitled and dated 2021. Set, in several cases, in the artist’s white-and-gray-tiled bathroom, they featured their plump, pink, prematurely balding creator not only coyly nude, but splitting into multiple miniature versions of himself. In one painting, Basil’s Buddha body dominates the lower half of the canvas, his face all feline eyes and chinstrap beard and fixedly pensive expression—the skin flat and smooth, manually Facetuned, with neat curls sprouting on his chest and upper back. Behind him, mini-me Basils, turned similarly mentally inward, kill time: One lolls from the metal shower hose; another bathes in the sink; a third solicitously runs the tap for him.

This painting set the tone for the show, whose deadpan iterations got more dryly comical as they accumulated and as the central figure continued to operate, in emotive terms, on the lowest possible wattage, inching through his days. We saw Basil tucked resignedly into the shower stall, little Basils perched on his shoulders and his limbs appearing to melt in the heat, as if he lacked the wherewithal to emerge. Elsewhere, a petite Basil perched parrotlike on big Basil’s shoulder, limbs elegantly curved in a Matissean manner. The surfaces of a tooth mug, a toothbrush, and a bathroom tap became the grounds for repeats of Basil’s face, and when the “action” shifted to an open closet, guess who we found tangled up among the hanging shirts and seemingly resigned to his fate. Or here’s his wallet with his house keys on it; and, yes, his face is on both keys.

Basil, who previously augmented his painted selfies with tender walk-ons for his boyfriend and occasional forays into daintily surreal, insular porn—turning hermaphroditic and fucking his own reflection—is an avowed admirer of wayward, sometimes-racy painter William N. Copley, but the throttled affect of the works on show here, and Basil’s Russian heritage, opens onto other influences and impulses. Encouraged by the press materials, one might have glimpsed a complicated nostalgia, in Basil’s leveraging of situational constraint, for the apartment shows put on in Soviet times by dissident artists for a small audience of peers. His attitude to the generational selfie imperative, meanwhile, sits on a knife-edge between capitulation and critique. This work gains some of its legibility and light bite from the new normal of excessive self-documentation, doing so in an inversely slow and analog medium. If Basil comes off as something like a life blogger, he’s one who may be starting to crack under the strain, to hallucinate a little. While he’s always in the frame, we never really know his thoughts: He keeps his selfie face on. He’s self-exposing but, in this relatively tame show at least, not NSFW. What you can hold onto, amid the feints, is pragmatism. Locked down for eons, with nothing but your own face in the bathroom mirror and everyone else’s faces online, endlessly, how do you skirt the abyss? Maybe you can paint it.