A whirlwind of energy: Holly Bass, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
To many people, this might not seem like progress: an African-American woman with "booty balls" strapped to her behind, wearing a red polyester jumpsuit and platform shoes, and gyrating to a mix of pop music and speeches inside a glass box as a crowd looks on for seven straight hours. But for artist Holly Bass, who recently gave this performance at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, it is indeed progress. "I'm interested in money, sex, and power," says Bass. "Underneath the Corcoran performance and much of my work is also the theme of identity." That performance, called Moneymaker, marks an important milestone in Bass's progression from being what she calls a "DC artist" to someone who has grabbed the attention of globally recognized curators.
Her movement and spoken-word pieces are steeped in a disconcerting fascination with, as Sarah Durkee, vice president of public education for the Corcoran, put it, "objectification, observation, and the commodification of art and of the body." Mera Rubell, who, with her husband, Don, is one of the world's most noteworthy patrons of contemporary art through their Miami-based Rubell Family Collection and a pending new museum in Southwest DC, considers Bass's performances "absolutely brilliant, provocative, and poetic," evocative of live sculpture.
Bass's Corcoran performance took place on the closing weekend of 30 Americans, a showcase of the Rubells' collection of the most important and established African-American artists, both past and present. "She's like the next generation of 30 Americans," Mera says. The couple has championed Bass ever since Mera made a whirlwind studio visit of 36 Washington-based studios in 36 hours in 2009.
For Bass, a San Jose native, meeting the Rubells and others who support and understand her work has helped to broaden her profile. "For years someone would say, ‘I know Holly Bass—she's a choreographer.' And then someone would say, ‘No, she's a poet,'" explains Bass, who has lived in Adams Morgan since 1994. "My personal challenge had been to unite these people to see my work." The artist, it seems, is leveraging that attention: In addition to her February Moneymaker performance, The National Museum of African Art and The Kennedy Center have commissioned original works. Bass's work is decidedly homegrown, cultivated at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's PlayGround Playwrights Group, the Capital Fringe Festival, and the Arena Stage; many of the performances were nurtured with grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Washingtonians can catch Bass performing a new solo theater piece at Dance Place on August 4 and 5. And after that? In characteristic fashion, Bass is quick to respond. "So the next frontier for me will be creating enduring two-dimensional relics based on my performance pieces," she reports. First up: a series of gorgeous, heavy, James Brown-inspired rhinestone belts for collectors both inside and outside the Beltway. It seems mama's already got a brand new bag.