"Over the Top: Math Bass & the Imperial Court SF"

What: An exhibition of regalia from a 62-year-old LGBTQ society in San Francisco combined with paintings, sculpture and video by Los Angeles-based artist Math Bass
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Closed Mondays, Tuesdays
Through: July 23, 2017
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street (at 10th Street), Oakland, California 94607. One block from BART's Lake Merritt Station
Tickets: $15.95 general, $10.95 seniors and students, $6.95 youth 9–17, free for members and for children 8 and under. Purchase at the door or online at See special rates at
Information: Visit, or call 510-318-8400

About the Imperial Court SF
The Tavern Guild of San Francisco held its first Beaux Arts Ball in 1963. The Guild, an organization founded by gay men who worked in bars, provided support for the gay community at a time when same-sex sexual activity was illegal. The Beaux Art Ball sustained a community tradition of festive and competitive events at which queens were crowned.
The Guild offered activist and drag performer José Julio Sarria (1922–2013 ) the title of Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball in 1965. She demanded, instead, the title of "Absolute Empress de San Francisco," and the Imperial Court was born. Since Sarria's coronation, the Imperial Council of San Francisco has crowned an Empress every year and an Emperor annually since 1972. During their reigns, elected monarchs lead fundraising efforts for a variety of causes. Read about ICSF's history and activities at
Sister societies began to spring up around 1970 in the Bay Area and beyond. ICSF is the mother court of the Imperial Court system, which now includes 69 chapters in three countries: Canada and Mexico as well as the United States.

About OMCA
Created in the mid 1960s by the merger of three separate museums, OMCA continues its three-fold focus on Californian art, history and natural science. Encompassing 300,000 square feet on three levels, OMCA aims to increase understanding of California's dynamic cultural and environmental heritage. Permanent exhibits draw on more than 1.9 million objects in OMCA's collection.
Special exhibitions include "Bees: Tiny Insect, Big Impact," on view through June 2017 with engaging activities for children and adults. "Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest" begins on April 29 and explores the artist's dream-like, often humorous, works. "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing," May 13 through August 13, presents photography as a form of social activism. There is an additional $4 charge for the De Forest and Lange shows. OMCA is open until 10 p.m. on Fridays through the summer, with reduced admission after 5 p.m. Anyone 18 years or younger gets in free, in addition to members. Admission is $5 for seniors and students, $7.50 for everyone else. A long line of food trucks and other activities contribute to lively Friday nights at OMCA.
Silberstein, Sachet
Anna Koster photo
Lisa Silberstein, OMCA Experience Developer, left, and Donna Sachet, The Ruby Songbird Empress, discuss the exhibition. Two Math Bass paintings hang on the back wall. ICSF banners are above and Empresses' and Emperors' portraits fill the wall behind Donna Sachet.
Two-in-one show at OMCA
celebrates LGBTQ culture
Works by Math Bass joined with artifacts
from the Imperial Court of San Francisco
April 23, 2017

In a unusual pairing of history and art, the Oakland Museum of California is presenting work by a contemporary artist based in Los Angeles alongside objects from the creative practice of a local LGBTQ organization founded in 1965. This two-in-one show intersperses ten artworks by Math Bass within an extensive display of regalia from the Imperial Court of San Francisco, which started as an annual ballroom event by and for the gay community with a "queen of the ball." This show is a celebration of LGBTQ culture and a treat for those less familiar with it.

ICSF Empress's and Emperor's state robes, a crystal-and-brass mantle, a variety of crowns, glittering laurels and bejeweled scepters hold a central place in the gallery dedicated to this exhibition. Portraits — many adorned with glitter, feathers and rhinestones — of 96 Empresses and Emperors from throughout the ICSF's 62-year history hang together for the first time. Previously, they have been seen only in small groupings in bars. A selection of 32 felt banners, each designed by or for a monarch, jut out from facing walls. A large case displays more than 100 medallions, brooches and pins commemorating monarchs' reigns, from their coronations to their "step down" a year later.

The ICSF grew out of the 1960s' Beaux Arts Ball sponsored by the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, a group composed of gay men who worked in bars. In its early years, the ICSF raised money to put up bail for members of the community caught up by anti-gay laws. ICSF's fundraising efforts turned to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and now focus on hunger, homelessness and youth as well as HIV/AIDS.

Just as the group's causes have shifted over the decades, its composition has evolved. The ICSF began including lesbians and bisexuals and then embraced transgender individuals. The LGBT acronym now includes "Q," reflecting younger generations' reappropriation of a word previously used as a slur. "Queer" has been claimed by many as a fluid and open term, one that is also self-affirming, assertive and political. OMCA uses "LGBTQ+" in exhibition literature to also include intersex, asexual and other points in the gender and sexuality spectrum. ICSF states on its website, "Though our primary membership is drawn from the LGBT culture we believe everyone has the right of inclusion and the desire to help their community."

Bass (born in 1981 in New York) lives and works in Los Angeles. She earned an MFA degree in 2011 from UCLA. This up-and-coming artist gets top billing in the show's title, "Over the Top: Math Bass & the Imperial Court SF." Five paintings and three sculptures by Bass punctuate the ICSF display, and two of her videos serve as an introduction to the exhibition. If the ICSF material is "hot," then Bass's work is "cool": precisely executed, restrained and emotionally neutral.

Her paintings, all created for this exhibition, are beautiful in their simplicity, with perfect application of gouache, an opaque water-based paint, on raw canvas. Untreated canvas is absolutely unforgiving; mistakes cannot be corrected. Yet every line is absolute, there is no brushstroke, smudge or stray mark. Flat areas of rich pigment create shapes that appear to be icons, signs and emblems.

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Her sculptures on view present recognizable forms: a giant red apple, spindly black ladder and V-shaped work. For the last one, created in 2016 and titled "Teen Dream," Bass used a long, skinny pair of up-side-down bell-bottom pants as a mold for concrete. Bass recently completed the ladder and apple sculptures for this show and asked that they be installed side-by-side.

The morning I discussed the ladder and apple with the artist, she said twice that she had been "thinking of the body, the weight of the body." When discussing the physical attributes of the ladder — thin boards, narrow steps, small base — Bass affirmed that one "wouldn't want to rely on that for support." I wonder if she meant emotional as well as physical support. In contrast, the apple is a robust, rounded, sensuous form. Even its stem is pert and perky. Look carefully, and you will see it turning ever-so-slowly on a rotating base. The ladder is untitled; the apple is named "Elizabeth."

The exhibition's publicity material explains: "Familiar symbols, flipped and ‘queered' to create new shared meaning, are at the heart of this exhibition." Christina Linden, OMCA associate curator of painting and sculpture, wrote that "artists in this exhibition have disrupted and upended a variety of symbols, from crowns to painted emblems, through inventive and creative actions. Set unstraight, the artists have made the symbols their own." Elsewhere, OMCA refers to "the radical possibility for artistic acts to foster self-determination and shared meaning for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities."

Exhibition organizers asked Bass to respond to ICSF items on view. Bass chose a black leather vest encrusted with pins. Bass's words accompany the vest that was worn by "Absolute Empress 18 Connie" when she was not in royal attire:

"What can I say of this soft weighted body.

I think of armor and adornment and of how these two things can share the same space.

I think of how we must invent our own languages in order to turn the language that is used against us upon its head. Strip it bare.

I do think of fighting and resistance.

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. Time grows in numbers, in pounds, to soften stiff leather from creak to crease."

Videos by Bass and an elaborate costume from "Absolute Empress de San Francisco" greet visitors as they enter the section of the museum devoted to art. The majority of the "Over the Top" show resides in the room at the far end of this long series of galleries. Bass's two clever videos, shown in sequence, appear simple. However, careful viewing reveals subtleties that are not easily explained — at least I could not figure them out. Look for other LGBTQ-related works nearby: an ambitious textile and a multi-media piece.

Anna Koster is an artist, art teacher and writer. Email Anna Koster at Visit her website at

Math Bass
Anna Koster photo
Math Bass, center, speaks with a journalist before the exhibition opens to the public. Her apple sculpture "Elizabeth" (ceramic with lacquer and wood, 22 x 22 x 22 inches) and untitled ladder (wood, 67 x 36 x 18 inches) are in the foreground. Both were created in 2017 for this exhibition. Portraits of monarchs from the Imperial Court SF's 62-year history hang on the wall. A selection of Empresses' and Emperors' banners hang above.
Newz by Bass
Anna Koster photo
"Newz" by Math Bass (gouache on canvas, 48x 50 inches, made in 2017). This painting's label reads, in part: “Here, [Bass] has placed four symbols on a field of yellow like collected badges or pins. Above, eyes set off the crests of a wave, teeth set off a crown, and the crown sets off a set of cheeks.”
Anna Koster photo
State robes, Empress's and Emperor's crowns and original 1965 scepters are on loan from the collection of the Imperial Council of San Francisco, courtesy of John Carrillo and Misty Blue. The coronet and laurels are on loan from Absolute Empress Marlena XXV.


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