Math Bass’s art possesses the self-assurance of an honor student handing in her homework, confident in having satisfied every requirement. “Off the Clock,” which occupies four galleries on the second floor of MoMA P.S.1, is thoroughly resolved formally, and tightly framed conceptually. The paintings and sculptures positively glow with the good hygiene of their education. While such achievements might matter to people who check report cards, they don’t say much about the art, one way or the other.
“Not one way or the other” could serve double duty as a catchphrase for the show and a critique. It’s a simplification of the wall text, which begins, “Math Bass is interested in ambiguous images that produce multiple ways of seeing a single composition.” Thus we see the repetition and rearrangement of a limited vocabulary of signs and materials, so that the same stacked semicircles of a B-shaped form that reads as the letter in one painting get rotated 90 degrees to make the butt on a loosely figurative sculpture nearby.
The paintings — moderately sized, roughly square — portray a cast of pyramidal shapes, slightly warped letters and numbers (stretched Z’s, 9’s with no holes), variations on a stepped zigzag, pneumatic four-petal flowers, and a lean rectangle with a gradient that when placed next to a stout wave shape reads as a lit cigarette. These are arranged evenly across the surface in what seem like endless combinations. The compositional invention is Bass’s great strength, often showing a glimmering imagination. It’s tempting to read them linguistically, as a kind of pop-hieroglyphics, but they never coalesce into “meaning” in that sense, rather acting more like strings of emojis. The critic Alex Bacon has argued that many younger abstractionists are not working from a painting lineage but within the concerns of the technological and “the screen,” which seems the case here: The images never construct pictorial or painterly space but are suspended in the immaterial fluidity of a digital interface. The shapes are thinly applied in gouache to raw canvas, producing an interestingly off-putting effect. Most of the flat, matte forms show no brushwork. A slightly encrusted edge where gouache meets the dry tooth of the canvas yields some energy; it’s as if the paint is simultaneously soaking into and resting atop the surface, like a dusty pudding skin. It’s hard to imagine painted surfaces that are less sexy — you don’t care to get up close. The only colors Bass uses here are an austerely darkened red, green, and blue, along with white, black, and occasional touches of sienna and light gray.
The four galleries are turned into two pairs, joined by a hole cut through their shared walls by iterations of Lauren Davis Fisher’s Structure A: Rupture B (2015) — a slant-topped rectangle of lumber studs with vertical slats every sixteen inches, which plays on the carpentry that underlies drywall. The intervention ushers the view from one gallery into another, becoming a kind of vertical reflecting pool between the pair. It also plays off one of Bass’s fundamental formal devices: a translation across an axis and through space. (The repetition recalls Roni Horn’s work, specifically Things That Happen Again: For Two Rooms (1986), wherein two identical truncated copper cones are placed in two different spaces.)
On either side of Fisher’s framework in both gallery pairs, Bass has mounted Brutal Set (2015): cast-cement positives of the interiors of two pairs of jeans, inverted so the legs stick up like V’s. The gesture rings as a lukewarm reiteration in a long line of artists enamored of Bruce Nauman’s Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965–1968), minus Nauman’s humor and existential mysticism. Several otherwise nice sculptures here are spoiled by overt smarty-pants references, including Body No Body Body (2013), a lumpy slipcover that might hold a crawling person, which is striped like a Daniel Buren awning, and Pot Tower (2015), a riff on Brancusi’s Endless Column made of coupled flowerpots.
Many artists have courted formal and conceptual polyvalence, but few as successfully as Brancusi, so it’s hard to see what further complication Bass achieves with her evocation. Transforming Endless Column‘s cast-iron and steel into garden terracotta as a way of bringing a modernist monument into a domestically scaled queer context is both reductive and overly literal. Sad to say, it’s also the sort of thing academics like talking about, and it clearly checks the right boxes for institutional feel-goodness — which accounts for David Getsy and Jennifer Doyle’s 2013 discussion of Math Bass’s work in their conversation on “queer formalism” in Art Journal. The added lens of sexuality makes it all the more strange that an artist whose subject matter involves so many bodies provides no actual sense of embodiment (or pleasure) — and it’s unclear whether this is Bass’s point or a symptom of a larger cultural condition.
The exhibition is so beautifully installed, its effect so intricate and impressive, that one gets the sense Bass is more interested in the spaces between things than in the things themselves. They’re objects from and for a generation estranged from the material world. It’s hard not to be suspicious of this “ambiguity” in a market where young artists’ safe, quirky takes on abstract painting rule the day. In her deft navigation of all the proper critical and curatorial concerns, Bass seems all too ready to be assimilated. Why bother being rolled behind the city’s walls in the Trojan horse of Formalism if you aren’t smuggling in soldiers? Or, to put it another way: If an artist hits all her marks, yet you come out of a show feeling nothing but ambivalence — no love it, no hate it — isn’t something missing?
‘Math Bass: Off the Clock’
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City
Through August 31