Math Bass was known, until recently, principally as a performance artist, although she has long made sculptures and drawings. Her performances – which, I admit, belong to a genre that I find rather pretentious – often combine solemnly delivered poetry or song with passages of improvised group activity. Dogs and Fog, an event Bass presented at Overduin & Kite in 2011, convened dry ice machines, cinder blocks and 20 or so dogs who padded amongst the crowd. A circle of singers, the artist among them, intoned in harmony a song written by the artist. The dogs seemed uninterested.
For her first solo gallery exhibition in her home town of Los Angeles, Bass chose to present an installation of sculptures and paintings; a performance in the space was scheduled for the last day of the exhibition and its anticipation inflected the show with a compelling sense of imminent action. ‘Lies Inside’, as the exhibition was titled, was tightly composed: all crisp edges, flat colour and neat formal rhymes. It was undeniably attractive, decorative even, and employed materials that are very much de rigueur in current art: from gouache on bare canvas to printed wallpaper, powder-coated steel and sanded hardwood. Without the engagement of unruly human subjects, these images and objects might have seemed like a closed and tidy system of signs and referents. As props within a performance, however – the silent, static sculptures are foils for the unpredictable sounds and movements of the bodies around them. ‘The body is a negative space. The body is conditional,’ Bass has stated.
This was most apparent in the series of waxed steel objects that were placed throughout the exhibition. Sheets of thin, dark grey steel had been folded and bent to create steps, zigzags and inverted V shapes. None invited the presence of a body more than Cold Sun (2014), in which a vertical strip of metal curves at head height, forming a shelter big enough for one person. It was slightly too low for me to stand inside, but I’d bet that it is just the right height for the artist.
The round arch of Cold Sun was echoed in an untitled architectural intervention that Bass made in the gallery: an abbreviated colonnade of just two arches, filled in between two pre-existing columns. Visitors unfamiliar with the space might not have noticed anything amiss had it not been highlighted in the press release. Once spotted, however, it signalled the extent to which Bass was determined to fit ‘Lies Inside’ into a consistent aesthetic system – obliging the architecture of the space to fall into formal lockstep with both her sculptures and her paintings.
This system originates from Bass’s series of paintings, all of which are titled ‘Newz!’ (2012–ongoing). The series has consistently stuck to the same media (flat gouache on unprimed canvas), the same limited palette and a prescribed vocabulary of semiotic devices. A cartoon alligator
with gaping jaws is the central motif; in different paintings, it is variously joined by smoking matches, round paint tins and a red ectoplasmic cloud that apparently signifies fire. Due to the extreme stylization of these images (think of public information signage in European airports, or Futurist graphic design) their meanings, when they are cropped and rearranged, are wayward in the extreme. The alligator’s teeth turn into stairs or its eyes become arched doorways and all parts of the symbology are liable to be scaled up or down in order to form new images – grinning faces, for instance, or purely abstract patterns.
For anyone encouraged by these paintings’ apparent graphic legibility, the series’ title should come as a warning: ‘Newz’ is simply a word that can be constructed entirely from the patterns in the paintings, with either the alligator’s eye or nostril serving as the letter ‘e’, and the zig-zag teeth supplying the ‘N’, ‘w’ and ‘z’. The symbols may have significance for the artist, but they are little more than formal designs for the rest of us.
Which is not to say that ‘Lies Inside’ contains only disinformation. Where the exhibition really took flight was in the relation between this more or less arbitrary language of two-dimensional signs and their sculptural and architectural analogues, which have the potential to damage, shelter, constrain or elevate the human body. The steel bars of three freestanding powder-coated sculptures, all titled Yellow Gate (2014), for instance, were more than sturdy enough to keep someone out – or in – if placed appropriately. Finely crafted basswood ladders, propped throughout the space, are pristine but, in theory, climbable. My only concern is that when ‘Lies Inside’ is over and its constituent sculptural parts are removed from this context of potential, performative future use, they may lose their relation to bruising, real world experience and be relegated to being as detached and as abstract as Bass’s pleasant, untroubling paintings.