Ambiguity Rules

Symbols, of course, are codes of a kind, stand-ins for agreed-upon meanings. Think about ordinary geometric shapes, letters, numerals, punctuation marks—they are so common as signifiers that to see them out of context is oddly disconcerting. And this is precisely what intrigues Los Angeles-based artist Math Bass, whose clean, crisp paintings explore the fluidity of symbols and their meanings.

Flipping symbols on their head—or “queering their meanings”—is at the essence of the Museum’s new exhibition Over the Top: Math Bass and the Imperial Court SF, organized by Christina Linden, associate curator of painting and sculpture. 

Bass has said that she “can’t stop thinking about orientation,” and her work profoundly reflects her fascination with ambiguity. “It isn’t the mission of the work, but this queerness is coming through. I am queer, and I have resisted a lot of costumes and posturing that I was supposed to do in my life,” Bass said in a 2015 interview in Art Journal. “It doesn’t come naturally to me to fit inside any predetermined box.”

Linden’s curatorial vision was to pair Bass’s work—most of which was created just for this exhibition—with regalia from the Imperial Court of San Francisco, one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ organizations still existing. Founded in 1965 by activist and drag performer José Sarria, the Imperial Court is a charitable organization that hosts coronation balls and many other lively events to raise money for a broad variety of causes. Over the Top will feature various Imperial Court artifacts, including robes, crowns, pins, scepters, and portraits of the court’s past emperors and empresses. Like Bass, the Imperial Court has re-oriented familiar symbols and given them new meanings; in this empire, items that traditionally signified monarchy and subjugation are now used to convey gay liberation, nonconformity, and personal freedom.

“Our goal with this exhibition is to show how symbols can be re-contextualized to create new shared meaning within LGBTQ communities,” explains Linden. “And this feels like a timely moment to feature this show, given the peril faced at this moment by LGBTQ people in this country, especially trans and gender-nonconforming people. Their right to self-determination is at serious risk. As a Museum, we strive to bring together people from different worlds and spark conversations, and Over the Top is all about creating a welcoming space for sharing ideas.”

Over the Top: Math Bass and the Imperial Court SF will be on view from April 1 to July 23.

Math Bass, Newz!, 2017. Gouache on canvas, 50” x 48”; Math Bass, Elizabeth, 2017. Painted on ceramic and wood, 29” x 24” x 24”; Math Bass, Teen Dream, 2016. Concrete, 44¾” x 26¾” x 9”; Math Bass, Untitled (Ladder), 2017. Wood, 67” x 35¾” x 18”. All art courtesy of the Artist and Overduin & Co., Los Angeles.

Over the Top

Math Bass and the Imperial Court of San Francisco unite to queer our understanding of symbols.

Return to Feature