Whether the settings are bohemian interiors or lush swamplike landscapes, nearly all of Hernan Bas’s paintings are populated by thin, young men with an aloof air. For the works in his latest exhibition, the Miami- and Detroit-based artist placed his trademark figures—“lanky twinks,” as curator Storm Janse van Rensburg describes them in the accompanying publication—in ornate rooms meant as an aesthetic homage to the Bloomsbury Group, the British cohort known for their literary, artistic, and intellectual output and unconventional lifestyles in the early decades of the twentieth century.
While the group, whose members included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey, lived and worked in the London area of Bloomsbury, they also gathered frequently at a country house called Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Today, Charleston is a museum dedicated to the group. Its preserved interiors are chock-full of paintings, books, and ceramics; almost all of the surfaces, by way of paint or upholstery, are covered in figurative or abstract-patterned decoration. Bas’s exhibition consisted of three large acrylic paintings and smaller works on linen or paper that draw on aspects of Charleston’s eclectic interiors. The familiar detail and intricacy of Bas’s pictures is especially intense in these horizonless images of stuffed spaces. Charleston’s decor seems to gain an almost tropical edge in his portrayals, which feature displays of seashells and coral and commingle warm yellows and pinks with hues of aquamarine and moss green.
In one of the large acrylics, Bloomsbury Revisited (The Sea Fan Collector), 2017, a dark-haired, fine-featured, and full-lipped youth, seen in profile, sits on a pink chair; pink and white pieces of coral hang from strings above his head. Though limned by a thin, dark line, he does not stand out from the background but is absorbed into the texture of the composition. His striped shirt offers one pattern among several in the painting, with a curtain and a swath of wall, for instance, providing areas with circular motifs. Bas’s young men often seem trapped in his works. They not only appear stuck on the cusp of manhood—their budding authority tempered with a kind of innocence—but also are embedded within the artist’s busy compositions. Some of the new paintings imprison the figures even further, presenting them not as living beings but as framed portraits amid still-life arrangements.
Today many critics and historians view the Bloomsbury set’s tangled relationships and liberal attitudes as queer avant la lettre. The members are also celebrated for their collaborative methods and their lack of concern for distinctions among disciplines. At the same time, some commentators criticize what they regard as Bloomsbury’s willful disengagement from the outside world during and after World War I. For Bas, Bloomsbury seems to serve a mostly decorative function, with the Charleston aesthetic giving a certain ambience to his images depicting seductive, vulnerable-looking characters. But while these paintings delight in sheer visual terms, whatever meaning Bloomsbury holds for Bas beyond that realm remains elusive.