Deep in the Oakland Museum of California’s art galleries, the exhibition equivalent of a Venn diagram fills a room with crowns and scepters, banners and pins, sculpture and paintings. Over the Top: Math Bass and the Imperial Court SF is the latest in curator Christina Linden’s series of (seemingly) odd-couple exhibitions, pairing local societies with contemporary artists to create unexpected conversations between disparate practices.
In 2015, Linden brought Bay Area suiseki groups and Los Angeles-based artist Jedediah Caesar together for UNEARTHED; the visual compare and contrast of found and man-made “stones” offered a meditation on the often-unexamined detritus of everyday life.
This time, Over the Top combines new work from Bass (another LA-based artist) with regalia from the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a 52-year-old charitable organization rooted in the city’s drag queen and LGBTQ communities. Not to be outdone by rhinestone-encrusted costume jewelry, velvet robes and commemorative enamel pins, Bass’ large-scale gouache paintings and sleek sculptures hold their own. Through worn objects and aesthetic arrangements, Over the Top repeatedly demonstrates the ways in which symbols -- depending on context -- create and complicate identity.
The monarchs of the Imperial Court benevolently preside over the exhibition in the form of individual glitter and feather-embellished portraits, beginning with the court’s founder, José Julio Sarria, otherwise known as The Grand Mere, Absolute Empress I de San Francisco and the Widow Norton José Julio Sarria, the Nightingale Empress. Offered the title “Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball” at a San Francisco event in 1965, Sarria, like the self-appointed Emperor Norton over 100 years before her, demanded a larger territory.
The rest, as they say, is history. Following in Sarria’s heels, the court crowns a new Emperor and Empress with the imperial name of their choosing each year. The year's reigning monarchs -- currently Emperor 45 After Norton Nic Hunter, His Most Imperial Majesty, the Hunter Green Bootylicious Flaming Giraffe Emperor of San Francisco and Absolute Empress 52 Mercedez Munro, Her Most Imperial Majesty, both Merciful and Stern, The Virgin Empress of San Francisco -- are responsible for directing the society’s fundraising efforts. Over the decades, the court has shifted its priorities to reflect the needs of the local LGBTQ community, from civil rights to AIDS to homelessness.
Bass’ work interrupts and complements the court’s ceremonial objects by referencing their emblems, colors and patterns in visual systems of her own making. Like the courts’ commemorative felt banners hung near the gallery’s ceiling, several of Bass’ paintings echo heraldic compositions; eyes, pyramids, punctuation marks and jagged zigzags replace a coat of arms. In one of four paintings all titled Newz!, a rounded red X sits dead-center against a rich purple background, linking the velvet robes of the Imperial Court with the bright red of Bass’ slowly-turning oversized apple sculpture, Elizabeth.
But it isn’t all abstract, enigmatic symbols in Bass’ work. The stark painting Bones and Teen Dream, a pair of upside-down bell bottom jeans of made of cast concrete, are reminders of the people -- like Sarria and her imperial descendants -- who carved out a space for themselves and others in a society that would ignore or erase them.
This bodily presence is most tangible in a leather vest once worn by Absolute Empress 18 Connie, The Siren, Temptress, Seductive Empress. Heavy with bright, intricately designed enamel pins distributed by outgoing monarchs to coronation ceremony attendees, the jacket is punctuated by a response from Bass, captured in the exhibition’s wall text: “I think of armor and adornment and how these two things can share the same space... I think of the body that cradled this garment, and of the weight and security that this garment must have offered. As shield and as signal.”
Over the Top is a mesmerizing glimpse into the various acts of creative defiance available to those who would fashion their own language, symbolism and identities -- both as a form of personal expression and self-preservation. As Emperor 44 After Norton Salvador Tovar, The Cheerful Unicorn Emperor of the 4th Wave says, "We draw strength from our diversity. We unite in the face of oppression. And above all, we have fun doing it."
'Over the Top: Math Bass and the Imperial Court SF' is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through July 23, 2017. For more information, click here.