The Miami-based Rubell family gave a great boost to their local favorite, Hernan Bas, when they sent an exhibition of his works, all from their collection, to the Brooklyn Museum. It made for the artist’s most significant show to date, presenting not only paintings—for which he is best known—from throughout his career, but also early drawings and little-known films and sculptures. And it spurred Lehmann Maupin to supply a promising coda comprising a new series of paintings.
Bas, born in 1978 in Miami, was raised and largely educated there, and he lives there still. His work is very alert to the sea. The five-channel film, Ocean’s Symphony (Dirge for the Fiji Mermaid), 2007, features underwater footage of women clad as mermaids; it was shown alongside a sculpture assembled from seashells, old glass bottles and old-fashioned marine paraphernalia. Bas’s art is also rooted in the European decadent tradition, references to which he often splices with popular subjects. (This is one inclination he shares with Elizabeth Peyton: both are figurative artists drawn to androgyny, European literary romanticism and popular subjects.) Antique romance and contemporary fandom meet in Floating in the Dead Sea with Ghost Ship Pirated by Hedi Slimane (2003), in which the artist’s body is shown adrift near a galleon bearing a photograph of the fashion designer. This painting demonstrates what Bas does well: disposing his figures in lush and detailed settings in such a way that they seem to merge ecstatically with their world.
These successes aside, however, the Brooklyn survey felt premature: the work looked arbitrarily eclectic in its range of mediums and felt thematically obscure. Ocean’s Symphony employed scale and impressive camera work to mask its dearth of new ideas, while the sculpture accompanying it was little more than an assortment of beach souvenirs. And as a painter, Bas often seemed technically uncertain. He clearly struggled to control the sprawling backdrop in The Great Barrier Wreath (2006), a landscape fantasy depicting a parade of young, romantically costumed men. And at 5½ by 12 feet, the picture betrays his other weakness, overweening ambition, which has lured him into sculpture and film although his talents clearly lie in painting.
It was heartening to see those talents confirmed at Lehmann Maupin, where he exhibited a new series of landscapes, “The Dance of the Machine Gun & other forms of unpopular expression.” The larger purpose of the works’ references—this time to F.T. Marinetti and Alfred Jarry—remained obscure, but the pictures fulfilled the ambitious goals Bas seemed to be striving toward in earlier works. Ubu Roi (the war march),2009, is another parade in a landscape, though here the figures proceed from a fantastical city—depicted in flat, geometric forms—into a rocky, mountainous landscape realized with painterly touches in a rich, varied palette, every element knitted together confidently.
Photo: Hernan Bas: Ubu Roi (the war march), 2009, acrylic on linen over panel, 84 by 144 inches; at Lehmann Maupin.