BY Dan Fox in Features | 20 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

The Eyes Have It

Puns, pictograms and props in the work of Math Bass

BY Dan Fox in Features | 20 AUG 15

If, like me, you’ve an incurable weakness for terrible puns, then Los Angeles artist Math Bass will be of no help whatsoever. Take her series of ‘Newz!’ paintings (2013–ongoing). As I stand in front of these square, raw canvases, emblazoned with bright gouache icons, my primitive pun-brain – an ancient part of the cerebral cortex woefully under-researched by evolutionary neurologists – immediately kicks into goofy gear: ‘Hey, what’s Newz!?’ ‘No Newz is good Newz!’ ‘Which do you want first? The good Newz or the bad Newz?’ ‘Tonight’s Newz headlines are … ’ To judge by Bass’s paintings, the Newz is that alligators are repeatedly mistaken for staircases and doorways, cigarettes are confused with chimneys and arches are taken for noses. Watch out. 

 Newz!, 2014, gouache on canvas, 91 × 86 cm. All images courtesy Overduin & Co., Los Angeles; photographs: Brian Forrest

Watch out, because the pun is a powerful tool. It destabilizes and enriches language. It’s a secret trapdoor that can take you into an alternative universe where not all is what it seems. In her ‘Newz!’ paintings, Bass stress-tests a basic set of motifs, exploring what metamorphoses they can be put through. In one work, she may depict the bright green profile of an alligator’s jaws and its beady eye, which in another will transform into a green pyramid with ziggurat steps and a black and white arched doorway: it wobbles between being a beast and a building. Bass may then vary the alligator-ziggurat shape, and place it beneath a smoking cigarette which, hovering between two stumpy cylinder shapes, turns the entire canvas into a schematic face – two eyes, a nose and a mouth. The ‘Newz!’ paintings are bold, multi-level updates on the famous rabbit-duck illusion: which do you perceive first – the alligator’s teeth, the cigarette, the nose or an entire face? Or should we be reading these motifs as some form of hieroglyphic language – a pictographic message from an alien intelligence that, once deciphered, will provide the key to world peace? (Or, if not that, then at least the answer to the urgent question: do alligators smoke and have an appreciation for architecture?) Bass gave the title ‘Lies Inside’ to her 2014 solo exhibition at Overduin & Co. in Los Angeles. It could almost be the definition of a pun; a meaning that might be found inside or behind a word or image, or a meaning that might not appear to be what it seems – an image that lies. (Even the artist’s own name suggests other things: a branch of science, an audio frequency or a new genre of music.)

Newz!, 2015, gouache on canvas, 1.1 x 1.1 m

Bass’s work appears to be an extended exploration of function, asking what an image or an object’s primary role might be. Is this an abstract painting or a painting of a face? Is this structure made from bright yellow struts, and placed right in front of the painting I’m trying to look at, a sculpture or a fence? The title of Bass’s solo exhibition at MoMA PS1 this summer was ‘Off the Clock’. Things, it suggests, could moonlight as other things. They might also – to risk another pun – labour under the impression that they are something else. A sculpture in a gallery, for instance, may work as a prop for a performance. In the video Drummer Boi (2015), shown at MoMA PS1, we see, amongst cropped shots of bodies, terracotta pots and percussion sticks, a pair of hands drumming out a simple pattern using the struts of a wooden ladder and a trellis-like sculpture. The camera slowly pans across a room – Bass’s studio – showing an awkward alcove space and a wooden frame of the same dimensions. At the museum, a ladder was propped against the wall in an adjacent gallery, a space whose central wall was cut into the exact shape of the alcove in the artist’s studio that also appears in the video, and the wooden frame was fitted into it as a barrier. (It was made in collaboration with Lauren Davis Fisher.) Sculpture or prop? Ladder or drum kit? Gallery or studio? Rabbit or duck? The ladder looks like it could be from a game of Snakes and Ladders: get lucky with your dice and move to a new level of meaning.

Newz! And Its Shadow, 2014, latex paint and gouache on canvas, metal, 104 × 62 × 155 cm

If the idea that objects can have multiple functions, or be used in ways they weren’t designed for, seems somewhat prosaic – after all, artists are hardly the only people to know that you can use a heavy book to prop open a door, or that an inflated inner-tube makes a great snow sled – keep in mind that Bass also likes to populate her exhibitions with ceramic Scottish terriers and upturned pairs of legs. The latter are concrete casts of the insides of denim jeans; the ‘V’-shape they make could be Winston Churchill’s Victory salute, the peace sign or a two-fingered insult – a ‘fuck you’ or an ‘I love you.’ (Denim was historically a form of work wear: that it’s the absent cast for sculptures in ‘Off the Clock’ suggests a subtle allusion to the subject of labour.) The black and white Scotty dogs have floor-length fur that hides their legs, making them look a little like the robot dog K-9 in the British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who. Their appearance in ‘Off the Clock’ echoes a 2011 performance by Bass at Overduin and Kite, titled Dogs and Fog, for which the artist and her collaborators sang songs in a gallery filled with, well, dogs and fog. The schematic appearance of these canine sculptures also brings to mind Snowy, the faithful companion to Hergé’s famous boy journalist, Tintin. Indeed, throughout Bass’s work there is something of Hergé’s signature drawing style: even colours and a uniformity of line, almost like sign-painting. This graphic flatness is a form of deadpan humour, one that hides strata of meanings in the work. It’s a way of saying one thing and meaning another. Dig the newz breed.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).