Geometry Lessons with Math Bass

It’s difficult to categorize Math Bass’s approach to geometric abstraction–a sure sign the artist onto something new. Based in Los Angeles, Bass works in sculpture, painting, and video, effectively wielding simple shapes to suggest objects, text, bodies, or, at times, their absence. Rendered in flat planes of color, the forms fit together in a poetic yet ambiguous way, leaving space for viewers’ subjective interpretations.

Earlier this month, Bass’s first museum solo show, “Off the Clock,” opened at MoMA PS1. Organized by curator Mia Locks, the exhibit presents a selection of the artist’s recent sculptures and paintings, including selections from the “Newz!” series, which riffs on newspaper-like graphics. Arranged on the floor are ladders and concrete casts of the inside of pants, as well as more abstract pieces, such as a crooked metal strip, a column that looks like a stack of ceramic planters, and a tarp thrown over what could be a crouching figure.

In a collaborative gesture, Bass invited artist Lauren Davis Fisher to replace two triangular sections of drywall with bare-bones wooden framework, turning the exhibition’s four separate rooms into two adjoining pairs. The choice was an homage of sorts to a sculpture conceptualized and executed by Fisher for an empty space underneath a staircase at Bass’s studio, but that was never installed. Meanwhile, as visitors move through the exhibition, different angles reveal various juxtapositions of the wooden beams and the works in the adjacent room. The artist also created a new video work for “Off the Clock” that was largely shot around her studio’s staircase, expanding on this motif.

Shortly after the opening of the exhibition, we connected with Bass over the phone.

RACHEL SMALL: I would love to hear how “Off the Clock” came to fruition.

MATH BASS: I’ve been in communication with the curator, Mia Locks, for a few years. She had seen some of the work I had done for [my] thesis show at UCLA. Then she had seen some other performances I’ve done. She had a sense of a range of my work. The spaces that we did the show in are generally used as a group show project space; she presented the idea to me as a solo show within four separate rooms. I was excited about figuring out how to approach that space. I also knew that I was going to be able to cut out portions of the walls. That informed a lot decisions with this collaboration that ended up being one of the critical moves of the show. 

SMALL: Can you elaborate on how that move relates to your studio space?

BASS: [The artist] Lauren Davis Fisher was originally going to do a show in my studio that never panned out—I’ve had my studio function as a site for performances and installations. There’s this architectural anomaly that’s [under] the stairs of my studio. She was going to insert this wall into that negative space to kind of articulate that space. We live together and half [of her space] is her studio the other half is her living space, so the sculpture ended up becoming a fixture in her studio. We both started to see these relationships, and [how] they were articulating these negative spaces and acting as barriers and as frames. It made sense when I found out that I could open up the walls—cutting open the space and retrieving it was a collaborative gesture. I think there was a question of, “How can you have another artist work in your solo show?” That felt like a non-issue to me.

SMALL: There are also several “Newz!” paintings, which is a series you’ve been working on for a while. Can you tell me about how that developed?

BASS: I approach it as a theater of images. I’ve been developing this vocabulary of symbols for the last almost three years now. It continues to generate new images from symbols that I’ve been working with. My interest in the series [comes from] how these forms operate between being architectural and discrete and bodily and, at points, referencing language or alphabet.

SMALL: How do you imagine viewers interpret it?

BASS: I’m actually really invested in having them be open so that people can experience it in whatever way that they do. And, I’m thinking about the way that there’s tension between recognizable and unfamiliar shapes and symbols. There isn’t one way to view the pieces [or] images.

SMALL: In organizing the exhibition, were there any challenged you didn’t foresee?

BASS: It was a different approach than I’d ever taken before. Usually, if I’m going to do a solo show, I start from an assumed beginning until I get to the end of the body of work. This [involved] going back over work that I’ve made in the last three years. A lot of the pieces weren’t all in the same space together, so I was figuring out grouping and relationships. It’s interesting to see the show coming together in this virtual space, and then applying it to a physical space. But when I got [to MoMA PS1], so much of the exhibition had been laid out [that it was an] easy installation.

SMALL:  Looking back, you were known for your performance work. Does performance relate to or preface the ideas or work in the show?

BASS: I think there is a way that these objects and images continually point toward each other and shift. I think there’s performativity to that. And I think there’s performativity in the way that these structures, inserted into the walls, twist or shift the entire scene [as viewers move through the show]. I feel like that activation is very performative. I think a lot of it is in these implied actions or movements that occur throughout the exhibition.

SMALL: I feel like there are a lot of shapes in the show that suggest the human figure, which also relays the idea of performance. I feel like subjectivity can come into play because questions arise about: What sort of performance is the figure doing? Is it beginning? Ending?

BASS: I think there are all these different points in the show where the body appears and disappears in different ways. I’m interested in the way that those points connect with each other. I think that there are all of these different positions or gestures. That tarped structure points toward somebody who’s potentially crawling or praying or kneeling. The inverted, concrete casts of the interiors of pants oscillate between being bodily and becoming a symbol. Then some of the steel structure reference bodies standing up or bending down in all these different ways.

SMALL: I’d love to hear more about your background as an artist. How has your past work led to your current style, mixing minimal sculpture and paintings?

BASS: I have been interested in flat, graphical images for a long time. I’ve been working with performance and video and sculpture and drawing for as long as I’ve been an artist. I guess I’ve always sort of been attracted to a certain kind of flatness. That attraction emerged when I was working with video, in which I would create tableaus that were really flat–like one object in front of another object. That naturally translated when I started to work in 2-D and 3-D.

SMALL: What is the relationship between your 2-D paintings and your sculpture?

BASS: I think it all has to do with arrangements of objects in space—whether it’s a three-dimensional space or a flat, pictorial space—and how those relationships have a certain frequency when they are in proximity to each other. There’s something about a tension that’s being facilitated between these images of objects that I’m being attracted to.

SMALL: When did the human body merge with your practice? Or, more accurately, how did the implications or actions of the human body merge with the geometric elements?

BASS: At least with a lot of videos, I was always struggling or dealing with having this erased body or faceless body or ambiguous body. A lot of videos [dealt with] absence of the body. I can’t really pinpoint where I started to put them together, but it’s sort of a chain.

SMALL: The ladders, too, make a pronounced statement about the absence of a body, I feel. The ladder in itself is like a stretched body shape, but it’s also a clearly usable object, that, in a museum setting, no one should be using.

BASS: Nobody would want to climb up it, per se. In that way, I think it functions more as an image of a ladder than as a functional object. I feel like there’s a performativity of that object and the implied use of it. The way that it moves the body through a vertical space is interesting to me.

SMALL: I also love how different the experience of the exhibition can be depending on how you physically approach and move through it. Especially with the opening in the walls–you have to look around and notice new things as you look at it from different angles.

BASS: I think it acts as a framing device and as a barrier in one room and an opening in another. I think that also the dimensions of that sculpture are in accordance: Each of the strips of woods is 16 inches from center. Lauren was addressing the conventions of framing a wall and construction. Thinking about experiencing the show from all these different positions…there are multiple ways of seeing, multiple viewpoints and entry points.