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In 2011, Math Bass staged a performance titled Dogs and Fog in which a mismatched pack of dogs roamed the gallery space of what was then Overduin and Kite. As they rambled around, the room began to fill with fog until a gray haze permeated the space. Eventually, seven singers formed a circle and began to chant a series of verses conjuring images of “dying,” “piss,” and “scores of blood.”
Much of the verse from that song was transposed to this exhibition at Mary Boone in a room-wide sound piece, marking the first time that Bass has accompanied her well known NEWZ! paintings with an aural element. The 2018 sound piece, also titled Dogs and Fog, emitted intermittently from four column-like sculptures placed throughout the gallery. At times, the voices played from two speakers at once so that several voices blended together as they chanted the repetitive and incantatory verses (“here it rests in storm and smoke / stormy smoky sky / here it rests in stormy smoke / storm and smoking sky”).
Bass has been making NEWZ! paintings since 2012, employing a visual alphabet of recognizable forms like alligators and cigarettes as well as more ambiguous symbols of her own making. The addition of an auditory element—which has previously been the foundation of Bass’ performances—to this show of 2D work gives new life to Bass’ visual alphabet and deepens the impact of its shifting symbols.
The oblique punning present in the sound work is perpetuated across her paintings. Like word play, Bass’ visual puns are born out of shapes that look alike but have different meanings. Six out of the ten paintings on view included some variation of a white shape that alternatively acts as a speech bubble, an elongated muffin top, or, in its entirety, a cartoonish bone (the bone, of course, also invokes the dog of the sound work’s title).
Bass’ symbology has always been slippery but, in tandem with the rather witchy sound piece, her painted icons seemed alchemic, even more capable of transfiguration. Together, the visual and the aural underscore Bass’ career-long emphasis on the mutability of signs and their power to shift and vary (recalling the function of a spell).
Dogs and Fog was equal parts witchy incantation, Gregorian chant, and ghost story. In its repeating phrases and invocation of brooding imagery (“vultures came and picked the bones / ate them dry / when they left they left nothing / nothing left but hair”), the sound piece started to feel like a hex.
In this respect, Dogs and Fog reminded me of other artists’ queer quasi-spell-casting. New York-based comedic performer Morgan Bassichis’ recent performance/album “More Protest Songs!” is a collection of songs characterized by their sirenic repetitiveness. In a 2017 interview in BOMB, Bassichis explained: “I always think of these [songs] as spells. I love what Suzan-Lori Parks says, ‘Words are spells,’ and I love repetition.”1 The recent interest among artists in the magical surely stems in some part from the fact that spells are historically a way for the marginalized to take some share of power, to threaten hegemonic culture and unnerve and intimidate on their own terms.
In the same way that the hex is an ominously opaque threat to dominant culture’s obsession with control, Bass’ paintings have long troubled fixed meaning by utilizing evocative if ambiguous motifs. Dogs and Fog gave new life to Bass’ alphabet by retooling her slippery arsenal of mutating signs into a spell of multifarious capacities.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 13.