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.
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.