By Massimiliano Gioni
The world of Hernan Bas is populated with teenagers embarked on extraordinary journeys, often caught in sudden moments of loss and abandon. In spite of their adventurous lives, they seem perched on the paper like strange, exotic insects – a collection of butterflies, trapped with manic precision by a 19th century entomologist with a taste for sordid pleasures. Hernan Bas’s drawings are the kind of illustrations one would expect to find concealed in a dusty volume bound in leather, carefully hidden on the top shelf of a library in an old country house. They would be like a Pandora ’s Box stacked somewhere between a herbarium and the complete works of the Marquis De Sade. If someone were to find these drawings and paintings in a couple of decades, they would probably be viewed as the products of a fervid and morbid imagination, akin to that of Henry Darger, yet more romantic than gruesome.
Hernan Bas, in fact, is a young artist who paints with the creepy insistence of a loner, fully immersed in his obsessions. Series after series, Bas adds a new chapter to his encyclopaedia of pleasure, composed of personal re-writings and re-interpretations of both classic and cheap literature. On top of these he lays references ranging from fashion photography to record sleeve designs. Elegant and squalid, Bas’s work is rooted in popular culture and, at the same time, highly sophisticated, like the pastimes of a bored dandy who experiments with erudite fancies, rock and roll nightmares and suave vision; like a paradise at once lost and artificially reloaded.
Bas’s universe is built on the thrill of discovery and, symmetrically, on the mystery that envelopes unknown forces, forbidden desires and sinister places. Whether portraying skinny boys lost in the woods, fainted castaways or teenage models, Bas always drowns his characters in a maelstrom of menacing fluids, spinning vortexes and imminent thunderstorms– at times he even transfixes them with satanic symbols. When these characters are not fighting against some meteorological or supernatural manifestation of fury, they are often hiding in caves, cabins or shacks- like some sort of primitive men. These scenarios are familiar to any boy who has read his fair share of adventure novels, from Treasure Island to Lord of the Flies. The degraded version of this literary tradition, nevertheless, is what attracts Hernan Bas. What catches his attention is the stereotype of a communal, virile life, as depicted by the Hardy Boys series, or by their real life incarnations – boy scouts at summer camp, with their hierarchies, rituals and rites of passage.
And yet, Bas’s dark places also evoke much more tragic landscapes: immersed in a liquid, slippery light, painted with watery, lascivious strokes, they maintain the hallucinated substance of symbolist painting. Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau come to mind, but again as filtered through the pages of a high school art history manual.
This kind of suspension between opposing references and tensions is crucial to Hernan Bas’s work, because his paintings and sculptural interventions are always carefully posed as to remain ambiguous. “Everyone is worthy of suspicion,” Bas has written in one of his artist’s statements accompanying one of his exhibitions. Obviously the sentence refers to that sort of no man’s land of sexuality, in which many of Bas’s characters seem to dwell –a space suspended between puberty and adolescence; a time in which desire is still unclear about its aims, and shame is not yet imposed from the outside. But in Bas’s work suspicion extends much further than the territory of sexual identity. You just need to look at the characters in his paintings: there is not much overt sex; instead, it is all about posing and transforming one’s self. The works invent personal mythologies and legends– private worlds to live in. It is reality itself that is suspicious, that is why it must be refused and transformed.
The age of nature is past; it has finally exhausted the patience of all sensitive minds.
HERNAN BAS: "SEX IN THE AFTERNOON"
By Nancy Spector
It is always late afternoon in Hernan Bas’s universe, that time of day when evening begins to encroach on the remaining light and shadows grow long. It is an in-between time, bridging things that come to an end—school or work—and affairs of the night. For some, twilight invokes a sense of unease, a quiet anticipatory dread of the hours ahead before day reappears. For others, particularly the young, it can offer unsupervised interludes for myriad transgressions, extra-curricular affairs of the body and mind. In his drawings and paintings depicting young men in various pursuits from the mundane to the fantastical, Bas evokes both the disquiet and the furtiveness of this liminal hour. His subjects—boys on the verge of adulthood, distinctly androgynous and conspicuously sensual—are themselves mutable and particularly vulnerable in their search for adventure, intimacy, or escape. Bas calls this nether-realm “fag-limbo,” a fleeting, utopic time of pure possibility when definition is unnecessary, categories irrelevant, and desire polymorphous. His narrative work imagines this temporal space over and over again, exalting in its promises and lamenting its transience.
The androgynous male has had currency in our visual culture for centuries, if not millennia--from the eroticized ephebe celebrated in ancient Greek sculpture to the florid visions of a “third sex” in fin-de-siècle Symbolist painting to the decidedly effeminate posturing of Glam Rockers during the 1970s. The fashion industry co-opted the anti-heroic, gender-neutral look of the “slacker” generation in the 1990s, commodifying and sexualizing its drop-out, laid back sensibility. Images of waif-like boys and emaciated girls groggy from what could only be imagined as episodes of intense debauchery graced the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the like. This style, known as “heroin chic,” became prevalent enough (in the Warholian fifteen-minutes granted all pop cultural phenomena) that President Clinton publicly condemned it in 1997. This was not before Calvin Klein, ever the one to jump on a stylistic bandwagon, dropped his beefy underwear model cum rap-star Mark Wahlburg in favor of that strung-out, undernourished look. Klein’s black and white CK One perfume ads from the mid-1990s presented a kind of mix-and-match sexuality with androgynous looking, jean-clad youths in various groupings—pairs, trios, etc. Courting controversy as a marketing technique, Klein also launched an ad campaign for jeans that emulated the seedy, rec-room aesthetic of the porn flick, complete with wood paneling and shag carpeting. In this case, the ambiguity of his models’ gender did not come into play—rather, it was their ages. Though quickly censored, these and other ads promoting the underdeveloped as the new “cool” reverberated throughout the culture.
Hernan Bas, a self-professed fashion junkie, found the androgyny trend both ironic and alluring. As a young, gay artist, he identified with this visual code for male beauty and appreciated its sudden prevalence in mainstream culture. At the same time, however, he marveled at the ersatz, performative nature of the imagery: straight boys playing at being gay for the sake of style. In his first mature body of work in 2000, Bas created portraits of such individuals by drawing them with SlimFast liquid and powder or covering photographs of male models clipped from fashion magazines with the diet drink. As a native of Miami, he must have witnessed his share of bodily obsessions—of the chiseled men and surgically-enhanced women who frequent the beaches and clubs. Bas’s work underscores the fact that waif-like androgyny, unless a biological given, takes a certain kind of self-discipline.
Bas dubbed this new class of boys the “nouveau sissy,” and devoted his next series of drawings and paintings to showing them at play in an idealized “fag limbo.” He derived the settings from Boy Scout manuals; canoes, tents, outdoor showers, and grassy fields populate mis-en-scènes ripe with homosocial connotations. The languid boys, depicted in Bas’s fluid shorthand, swim, hike, and lounge in their canoes. One urinates onto a campfire, a pair tugs on a wishbone, and another steals a kiss inside a tent. Rendered primarily in black, white, and tan pigments with a loose but precise brushstroke, these images foreground a process that Bas has described as “creative misinterpretation,” a favorite pastime of many gay youths, involving the search for signs of queer desire in mainstream culture.
In the subsequent series “It’s Super Natural” (2002), Bas appropriated yet another cultural trope ripe for inventive misreading: The Hardy Boys detective novels. Again conflating two discrete narratives—coming-of-age and coming-out—he underscores the elements of intrigue and mystery inherent to the genre. The two boys—brothers or maybe, in this scenario, lovers—are shown in furtive scenarios: hiding in the bushes to spy on others, lurking in the dark, or exploring a haunted house. When exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami in 2002, these works were installed in a darkened gallery and could only be seen with a flashlight, a conceit that heightened the voyeuristic, illicit nature of their content. In his next body of work comprising the series “First Comes the Blood, Then Comes the Boys” and “Love in Vein” (both 2002), Bas moved from the “whodunit” narrative—a perfect genre for the question “is he or isn’t he?”—to the occult. His source for this shift to the paranormal was the NBC soap opera Passions, a kitsch, small-town drama involving a 300-year-old witch, zombies, and assorted spirits. It prompted Bas to contemplate how far an individual would go in the search for romance—to the point, perhaps, of selling one’s soul—and how otherworldly and ephemeral true love seemed to be. The work consists of large, silver-gelatin photographs of attractive young men, their images partially obscured by splatters of scarlet pigment and cut-outs of Satanic pentagrams. They are accompanied by paintings on vellum depicting similar boys performing strange rituals, casting “love spells,” and conjuring spirits. Their figures are rendered with a fervent, expressionistic stroke that reverberates throughout each composition, creating the illusion that each boy is melting into or becoming another. The brooding, almost sinister tenor of these images aligns Bas with a Goth sensibility. Certainly this is his most unsettling, pessimistic work to date. In an artist’s statement issued with the series “First Comes the Blood,” he explains, “We are all haunted, by the one you’re with, by the ones you lost and, lastly, by the idea that the one could still be out there. It is these ghosts, those loves gone by or still lingering like poltergeists that make [this series] look like an attempted séance or exorcism.”
Bas’s most recently completed series of paintings shown at the Daniel Reich Gallery in a solo exhibition titled “Sometimes With One I Love” (2004) expands upon his Romantic absorption with death and passion. Gone are the explicit references to black magic, but his indulgence in the morbid prevails. In one particularly wrenching picture set on the periphery of a cemetery, two lovers stand facing one another. Each holds a gun to his own heart with long, rose-colored cord tied to the triggers in order to perform simultaneous suicide. In this context, an accompanying painting of young fencing students waiting to practice takes on a more ominous cast with its allusions to dueling for love or for honor. There is also a haunting, scene-of-the-crime image showing two boys prone on a bed. One’s face is masked and his fly is open; the other’s hands are bound behind his back and eyes blindfolded. A third stands and stares out the window. It is unclear whether this represents a deviant ménage-a-tois with fatal consequences or simply the aftermath of some S/M exploit.
Long intrigued by the perverse, Bas had previously explored its modern-day roots in a series paying homage to fin-de-siècle decadent literature and its evocation of the dandy, that dapper voyeur often coded as homosexual. It was in this series, entitled “On the Edge of Elysium” (2004) and the contemporaneous, “A Little Bit of Moby Dick in All of Us,” featured at the Whitney Biennial, that Bas interjected color into his usually monochromatic palette. His paintings are now saturated with rich, contrasting hues that intensify each picture’s individual story. The effect is often claustrophobic and humid, but also jewel-like. Bas paints strange, private worlds that are prisms of desire, romance, and madness.
Note: The title is borrowed from Jan Avgikos' essay on Franz West, "Sex in the Afternoon (Sex am Nachmittag)" Parkett no. 37 (1993), pp. 80-87.