New York

Ronnie Bass

1-20 Gallery

Ronnie Bass’s solo debut at I-20 Gallery featured all the conventions of an epic story but none of the connective tissue. The recondite, messianic narrative—involving, it seemed, a boy, his band, intergalactic travel, and a vague accident featuring an industrial-grade spiral dough hook—was told across two video installations, sculptures, oil paintings, and a small photograph printed on canvas. The overall effect was compellingly dreamy and fragmented, but also at times murky and uneven—the ingredients for an aesthetic vision rather than a coherent statement.

Bass’s videos are often set in a particular time and place. (“Catastrophe,” 2005, an intriguing series made in collaboration with artist Tommy Hartung, is set in New York in the months closely preceding and following the 9/11 attacks.) His videos, which typically feature Bass as the principal, or only, character, read as allegories for modern anomie and self-actualization, for escape from the banalities of daily existence—the sort of thing a temp conjures in his mind’s eye in the middle of a long day. At I-20, Bass looked to the near future, titling the show (after one of the videos) “2012”—hardly a random year, given the artist’s proclivity for narratives of transformation. After all, 2012 is at the heart of the eschatological Mayanism popularized by New Agers like José Argüelles and Terence McKenna, who have argued that in that year the ancient Mayan calendar will reach its end, ushering in a new phase of history.

The more compelling of the two videos, 2012 (all works 2008), is a broken bildungsroman featuring a father and a son (both played by Bass) singing a terse, arcane call-and-response about “systems colliding” and “ratios dividing.” A prelude to the big event, the song and video offer the darkness before the light. At the end, Bass meets up with two boys who appear to be lighting a birthday cake made of dirt. (In the song, Bass, as the figure of the son, notes that he’s approaching thirty-five.) The second video, The Sky Needs You Too, layers a low-tech animation of a soaring horizon over footage of an indie-pop synth band fronted by Bass, the sequence suggesting ascension and triumph. Throughout the works, Bass embraces bathos, mixing codes of sincerity with kitsch (the photograph printed on canvas; the overly earnest oil paintings) and camp (in both videos, he sports an ill-fitting, Vulcan-like black wig; in The Sky Needs You Too, his band “plays” fake instruments). There’s something oddly Koonsian about his deadpan affirmation of optimism and self-realization, his search for redemption in the banal.

Bass appears less interested in video as video than as a vehicle for his cryptic parables; he doesn’t seem concerned with the formalism that consumes other artists working in the medium, nor does he strive for a consistent visual style. His fellow performers seem listless, diffident—a stark contrast to Bass himself, whose ardent commitment to his role is partially what compels our attention. In their most intriguing moments, the videos seem like half-serious plays on New Age infomercials or allegorical vignettes from the early days of the Trinity Broadcasting Network; at their worst they seem haphazard.

The most evocative, and effective, component of Bass’s videos is his music: somnolent, minimal, ambient tracks in the lineage of Tangerine Dream or Vangelis. The songs’ New Age tinge lends the exhibition a haunting logic; it is here, mining this ambiguously spiritualist aesthetic, tweaking the codes of sincerity, that Bass goes deepest.

David Velasco