Math Bass Moma PS1

Installation view. Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1.

When the artist Math Bass was in the midst of preparing for her solo exhibition at MoMA PS1, which opened in Queens, New York, last Sunday, she experienced a crisis. “I just had this moment of anxiety while making the show,” says Bass, who lives and works in Los Angeles. “‘What am I doing? Where am I going?’ I had to get out of there. So I went to the desert.” The artist booked a room at an inn in Twentynine Palms, near Joshua Tree, and stayed there overnight, accompanied by her dog, in order to think. But the real revelation came during the drive home the next day. “The word ‘BABBO’ just popped into my head, and I kept repeating it to myself over and over,” she recalls. Stuck on it, she employed it in one of the new paintings at PS1. “It’s the first time I’ve ever spelled out a word.”

This may not seem like a major artistic turn, but for Bass, whose paintings and sculptures have a rigorous and repetitive—not to mention very attractive—visual language made up of clean, colorful pictograms, and who favors ambiguity over spelling things out, evolution comes as a matter of degrees. The four gallery spaces her work occupies at PS1 (a fifth room screens a short video she made) are filled with visuals that reference things we all know—a lit match, a crocodile—only reduced to their purest design. In a way, it’s cave art, after Adobe. “I’m interested in succinct images,” the artist explains. “How do I give the least amount of information possible?”

Take, for example, how Bass made a sculpture of a security fence, in a sunny yellow: “There are these security fences all over L.A. I have one in front of my studio that cast a shadow on the wall. I traced the shadow, and then I turned it into a line drawing, and then turned it back into a three-dimensional object.” Meanwhile, a hammock-like sling is painted in a terracotta color that references the clay pots to which it’s strung, only the hue has been boiled down, like a rich sauce on the stovetop, to some essence of terracotta, rather than any actual color that exists in the world. “I sampled the color,” the artist says. “It’s a pure color that asks, ‘What is a pot?’”

So much of Bass’s work follows this line of questioning. A sculpture suggests a prone human figure huddling beneath a striped tarp is just that: a suggestion, no more. “The figure starts to emerge, but never does,” says Bass. For the artist, who has been referred to as transgender but who prefers to not make a point of it, identifying marks seem to only hamper their mystery by boxing her images into preconceived notions. “Instead, I’m taking these familiar things,” she explains, “and pulling them into unfamiliar territory.”

“Math Bass: Off the Clock” runs through August 31 at New York’s MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City.