Vibrating geometric color fields, simultaneous contrast, and shadows and behaviors set up by different color canons, painter Brianna Bass’s work explores the order of form and the static of randomness.
In her new show “Scattering the Contrast,” currently showing at Lower East Side’s LatchKey Gallery, Brianna Bass’s spectrum paintings adhere to a system in which the artist links geometries in the color wheel to a continuous, layered sequence of recurring numbers. They connect Bass’s questions about color and language to the behavior of numbers, opening a conversation about space and time.
In addition to the show that runs through October 15, 2023, we spoke with Bass about prime numbers, material life, and questioning the color canon.
I have to say, your work is stunning. Your Instagram shows a lot of the process you put into creating your pieces—I have so many questions. I hope you don’t mind if I dive right in. Around this time last year, you were working on finding all the prime numbers between 1 and 1231—by hand. Did you finish the painting? And what happened to it?
Brianna Bass: Thank you! I finished a few prime number paintings, and have kept them close. They ignited my interest in the visual behavior of numbers. Prime number sieves work by gridding and numbering cells, then gradually eliminating composite numbers. You start by painting all multiples of 2: 4, 6, 8, 10, 12… (being divisible by 2 means they cannot be prime). You do this with each number in the grid, and the ones left blank are prime, only divisible by themselves. Even small grids can take a long time. I wanted to see what patterns would emerge if each number had its own color. It surprised me that all the multiples were predictable to map, yet prime numbers appeared so randomly. They are really interesting numbers. It’s a process I want to revisit in the future on a larger scale.
What inspires you to create?
Brianna Bass: Light has always been at the root of my work, how material things bend and bounce energy to make it visible. The poetry of major but background mechanisms in life excites me: language, vision, cognition, cosmological evolution. Art is where I play games and experiment, so it entertains me. Simple urgency is a driving force… If I’m not making art, I’m shredding napkins. It reduces anxiety and gives me a purpose. I have a lot of ideas that I need to visibly model before I can fully analyze them, and this gives my practice a mode of evolution. Art is how I process meaning, and slow down ephemerality to study the phenomena of material life. It is meditative rather than overwhelming, helping me breathe and pay attention to my senses. Each small unit is full of its own space.
On September 8, you opened “Scattering the Constant” at LatchKey Gallery on the Lower East Side. Tell us a bit about the show.
Brianna Bass: I am excited to share new paintings from 2023 in “Scattering the Constant.” The work splits into two modes of composition: linear paintings and geometric, expanded-frequency paintings. In the linear paintings, primary colors act as readymades, and patterns enact the insistent condition of legibility. This is undermined by randomly generated shifts in hue and dominance to create new fields of vision through optical synthesis.
The expanding spectrum paintings follow a system where I’ve attached geometries in the color wheel to a layered, ongoing stanza of stacked, repeating numbers. They connect my questions about color and language to the behavior of numbers, opening the work to poetries of time and space.
With the beautiful architecture in the gallery, there’s a syntax of relationships between the paintings, and it compels the viewer to wander through and collect the experience in moments. The floor has been painted white so that the paintings and observers can float together in space.
Could you pick a painting from the show and describe what we’re looking at, the process and thinking that went into the creation of it?
Brianna Bass: “Cosmological Redshift” shows a layered number sequencing pattern that I used throughout the show. The pattern stanza contains lines of number frequencies: 1,2 repeated, 1,2,3 repeated. 1,2,3,4 repeated, through 12. Reds are in the 1 position, beginning a framework that expands and shivers as the number sequencing plays out. Color gives the numbers a visible dimensionality.
The sequence continues directly from two previous paintings. The reds(1s) all left their starting positions at the same time, and my goal is to see how long this sequence plays out before the pattern repeats with the realignment of reds. Even when the reds finally realign, none of them will correspond like they did in the beginning. Their relationships will be exponentially expanded.
That is why these forms have me researching physics and the expanding cosmos. When we study objects in space, we look at spectral lines to understand which elements are present. In distant objects, the spectral lines are shifted toward red because the expansion of the universe stretches light. This is Cosmological Redshift. From object to observer, photons have to travel through a space that is increasing.
You had a residency last year in Naples, Italy. Can you tell us a bit about it? What’s your biggest takeaway from it?
Brianna Bass: I was working on a tight deadline in Naples, so it was like having a busy pre-show flow, but with Mount Vesuvius out the window and very delicious Italian studio lunches. I was invited to attend the residency to exhibit my work for “Art Days,” an important contemporary art event in the region. The Noh-Art family was generous and transparent in sharing insight into the inner workings of the art world, which was super valuable to me as a recent grad. Even at Yale, which often tosses artists into the industry, it is kind of taboo to discuss business and professional techniques. Naples is a unique city, and the experience was vibrant.
You have a post on Instagram captioned “early days”—how has your work progressed over time?
Brianna Bass: I reveled in vision as a kid, staring into translucent color, refracted light, the phosphenes behind my eyes, like the veil of reality fluttering. My continuum started in those memories, with amorphous investigations of ephemeral aesthetic moments. I was playing with compositional systems for organizing data and oppositions. I became obsessed with overlapping simple systems to produce scintillation and cacophony.
My work developed into rigorous abstraction around the time I began recognizing my hearing loss. The rigor came from the need to organize information and achieve legibility in my paintings, like prosthetic synesthesia. It was a painful realization that was exacerbated in grad school during COVID, due to masks that blocked lip reading and muffled sound, and the social spaces that bounced and diluted sound further. It was a constant struggle. Language and the point of its collapse became a strong theme in my painterly reasoning, comparing color’s behavior to packets of sound within the expression of a painting, how we decipher this utterance, and where legibility falls apart.
My systems have grown more complex and precise for analyzing the linguistic aspects of color, the legibility of pattern, the poetry of shadow and noise, sensational aspects of optical color theory, and questioning the color canon. I also began to use the degrees in the color wheel as a numerical base, which allows me to visualize music or mathematical patterns.
Is there ever a moment when you get very discouraged during your work, and how do you get past it?
Brianna Bass: Yes. Trying new things is risky, and sometimes a major undertaking falls flat or puts me on an unfruitful trajectory. Adjusting mediums helped with that recently. I started prioritizing oil over acrylic, which has transformed my experience, adding a ton of delight in experimenting with the potential of wet-on-wet geometry. The color and forms come to life.
I struggle with depression. It is part of the urgency that drives me to paint, but there is an inner monologue that challenges me on every aspect of my work, and at times it is too brutal. This is when I rest, reorganize, read, take walks, hike, or make an art pilgrimage. I recognize that not everything has to be perfect, but everything needs to be made. I focus on my inner visions and let them lead. It’s like sleep paralysis. Sometimes just moving the tip of your tongue can break the spell.
You always wonder if it will fall apart, but it oscillates, in and out of struggle and success. I trust that this is my mind/soul’s language, and it cannot be permanently harmed by mistakes or misfires.
What kind of opportunities interest you as an artist?
Brianna Bass: I am open to all of the opportunities, particularly ones that enable me to paint full-time and follow my intuitive path of visual research. Currently, I am working toward “UNTITLED” and another solo show in February, in LA. I love working with LKG. Gallery representation has given me so much insight, brought amazing people into my life, and allowed me to focus on painting. I’m interested in residencies, grants, writing and analysis, collaboration, teaching, and mentorship.
What vision do you have for yourself in five years from now? Where do you see yourself as a practicing artist?
Brianna Bass: A lot can happen in five years! Development of my practice on the studio level would be great, with space and assistance, important exhibitions, deep relationships with artists and professionals in the art world, larger scale plans and projects in operation, opening up to collaboration, and deepened dialogues between artists working similarly. Hopefully, we will see women and people overlooked in the histories of geometric abstraction given the equal canonicity they deserve. It is important to maintain power and freedom in my creative action. In five years, I want my paintings to show five more years of growth in insight, well-being, and fire.