‘Chloë Bass: Wayfinding’ | Putting Language into Public Space

Questions of Intimacy and Emotion Drive Outdoor Exhibit at Pulitzer Arts Foundation

Chloë Bass creates art that raises a lot of questions, often quite literally.

Questions such as those presented in “Chloë Bass: Wayfinding,” her public-art exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis: “How much of care is patience?” And “How much of life is coping?” And “How much of love is attention?”

Not that she always expresses herself inquisitively. Sometimes Bass tosses out an idea that hangs in the air like a kite, such as: “Some days you call out to the world and all that echoes back is your own emptiness.”

On view through Oct. 31, “Wayfinding” is an outdoor installation of more than 30 sculptures inspired by public signage. Although the exhibition includes a smattering of archival images, it primarily addresses the multifarious emotions that constitute the human condition — with a particular focus on intimacy and its implications.

The inspiration for “Wayfinding” came from “two separate places,” said Bass, a New York-based artist. The exhibition was originally commissioned by The Studio Museum in Harlem in New York and presented at the nearby St. Nicholas Park for a year beginning in September 2019.

“The first is that I notice a lot of language in public space,” she said. “And it’s not always poetic language, but sometimes it makes a sort of accidental poetry. Especially as signs maybe start to fall apart or be in disrepair.

“In Bed-Stuy, which is the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn, there’s a beautiful old sign that used to say ‘The Glorious Church,’ and now it says ‘The Glorious Hurch’ — because the first ‘c’ in ‘church’ fell off. And I really think it’s gorgeous. I’m a person who’s inclined to notice things like that.”

The exhibition was also inspired by connections Bass — who is an assistant professor of art at Queens College, City University of New York — made between a family relationship and the New York cityscape.

“When I was initially developing ‘Wayfinding,’ my grandmother, who I was very close to, was dying of complications related to dementia,” she said. “Watching her go through that process was really hard, and really sad.

Chloë Bass, “Wayfinding (2019) courtesy of the artist. Photographs of pieces by Alise O’Brien, Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Alise O’Brien. Photograph of Chloë Bass by Christopher Bauer.

“My grandmother was also born and raised in New York City, just like I was,” Bass said. “And New York City is always changing a lot, but it was changing a lot particularly in that time. A lot of new buildings were going up, and the skyline was changing. This relationship between the changing landscape of the city and the changing landscape of her mind and her memory was really striking to me.”

That observation inspired Bass to explore the idea of “putting language into public space.”

Located throughout the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s campus, “Wayfinding” has been adapted in collaboration with community partners to render the exhibition specific to St. Louis. The exhibition, Bass said, “has a totally new fourth chapter and a redone audio guide. The anchoring question for that fourth strand of the project, which was developed for St. Louis, is: ‘How much of belief is encounter?’”

The audio guide now contains “some of the research and personal narrative that was also in (the New York version), but has been adapted to make sense of certain conditions in St. Louis as well.”

The landscape was also a factor in adapting the exhibition, Bass said.

“Not only is the landscape of the Missouri area generally different from the landscape of the New York area,” she said, but differences in the terrain of the Pulitzer campus and St. Nicholas Park played a role in the placement of the signs.

Bass cites acclaimed artist Jenny Holzer, whose work involves situating words and ideas within the context of public spaces, as a significant influence.

“I think I’m working in a slightly different emotional register,” Bass said. “But you can’t put text in public space without paying homage to Jenny Holzer.” She has also been influenced by the work of poets such as Frank O’Hara and Claudia Rankine, and artists “who deal with direct public address” such as Lorraine O’Grady and Adrian Piper, along with “theater and, to some extent, dance.”

Indeed, Bass said, she thinks of her work as “an invitation for performance, whether or not there will explicitly be a performance.

“And so ‘Wayfinding,’ to me, is arranged like a choreography of objects in space. And also like the set for a play that hasn’t happened. And you complete the experience of the play by walking through and having your own experience.”

“Chloë Bass: Wayfinding” continues at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., through Oct. 31 (closed Independence Day). Admission is free. Visitors are requested to reserve spots in advance by booking timed-entry tickets through www.pulitzerarts.org. Masks must be worn in indoor spaces and outdoor spaces when social distancing is not possible.

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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