Meet the Artist

Hernan Bas on His Romantic Obsessions

Hernan Bas on His Romantic Obsessions
The artist Hernan Bas (Photo courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong)
Like some sort of camp take on Caspar David Friedrich, Hernan Bas's landscapes feel both sublime and over-the-top. The scenes of emaciated youths pondering nature and supernatural phenomena are densely composed. And yet, despite the amount of detail Bas crams into his paintings, the pieces needed to construct a narrative from the paintings are often missing. The resulting uncertainties add to the often eerie cast of Bas's paintings. In one work, a boy uses a flashlight in the dark as other boys look on in caves. The scene may carry homosexual undertones—but then again, it could mean something else entirely darker. The ambiguity of Bas's paintings makes them hard to look away from, even as the subject matter sometimes edges toward the genuinely bizarre.
Through February 23rd some of he artist's sources of inspiration can be teased out of A Queer and Curious Cabinet, on view  at Miami's Bass Museum of Art. This installation of supernatural ephemera that Bas has collected over the years appears as part of  "TIME"—an exhibition that deals with the ways artists mine the past or work with time-based materials. To elucidate his work further, Alex Greenberger spoke to Bas about why painting is magical, why his works are not autobiographical, and how Romanticism has influenced his work.
You have become known for painting highly aestheticized scenes with capital-R Romantic themes, often suffused with more than a tinge of the gothic. Your subjects are typically young men who are elegantly pining away or negotiating uncanny forested settings—giving your paintings a distinctly literary flavor. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It depends on the time of the day. I know that sounds a bit obnoxious, but it's actually not a stretch. I went through a period in which I had less and less time to research and just absorb stories and ideas, and it led me to a point where I had to pinpoint an interest and really nail down what it was that drew me to a topic. Early 19th century prose about finding one’s self sounds less and less authentic as the sun sets. I think I’m a night owl at heart, and Poe always trumps Thoreau at midnight, for me.
That said, I'm not sure that I know the answer to this question. I feel a little schizophrenic when it comes to inspiration. If my inspirations aren't obvious in the work, I feel more sane. Ultimately, I’m drawn to great stories, and I have an appetite for them that leads me all over time and space.
Your early paintings attracted attention for the way they explored homoerotic themes, presenting adolescent men in sexually freighted scenarios, often in the woods or in swimming holes. What is the connection between nature and sexuality in your early work?
I think talking about fear is the best way to discuss this. Early on, I made a good deal of works that did marry sexuality with horror themes. It’s hard to discuss the topic because I’ve always been rather vehement about maintaining a detachment from anything autobiographical. Maybe it is naïve on my part but these "boys," if you can even call them that, are not me. I don’t have the same personal fears that my subjects do. Yes, I spent my early adolescence in the woods of northern Florida, and I do have an inherent understanding of the boys' "fear of the woods." That understanding has stuck with me over time. But I never related what these boys are going through to sexuality in my own life. For me, it has always been a pop thesis on the matter, and not so much an autobiographical one.  
Your paintings continually return Charles Baudelaire’s idea of the dandy, a person who is obsessed with his appearance. The dandy came out of the 19th century, and it seems that the sprawling landscapes of your paintings also refer to Romantic painting that was being done in the 19th century. When did you first become interested in this time period, and why?
I’ve been drawn to this period for most of my adult life. It held a lot of my interests as a painter, especially as a figurative one. The drama, the hints at the paranormal, and the coded nature of anything that might be construed as gay all came to light in Romantic painting.
In the past few years, you’ve started to become more interested in supernatural phenomena. What caused that shift? How did you become interested in the occult?
My fascination with the occult started at a very early age. I remember finding the occult section of the library in grade school. I'm still surprised that part of the library even existed. It had everything on the checklist—ghosts, UFOs, witches, psychic phenomena, Bigfoot, you name it. The Time Life book series Mysteries of the Unknown was my Bible for a long time. Only later in life did I find the link between the strange and a more literal queerness.   
You once said that “there’s an element of magic to painting.” Could you describe what you meant by that?
I find painting to be a way of channeling magic. You can get lost in the paint, and an hour later, you step back and you can't believe the time passed. You're like, "How did I get here?" Getting the right color can also feel like alchemy if you get a little obsessive over it.  
Currently you are showing work as part of the Bass Museum's "TIME" exhibition. How are time and history important to your work?
One of my favorite moments in the show is the pairing of a small work by General Idea alongside a gridded collection of Victorian era mourning pins, which have images of the deceased on them.  The General Idea work is an edition made for Parkett consisting of a sheet of stamps depicting their own iconic riff on the LOVE works by Robert Indiana—these spell out AIDS instead. I loved the juxtaposition of the different ways we imagine and represent the notion of mourning throughout time.  
I feel like that ties into my installation, which is a collection, more or less. I’ve been collecting all of the objects on view over the span of a decade. As the collection grew, I found myself seeing these links between eras, all of which made sense to me in surprising ways. The model haunted house from the '60s is a lot creepier then the contemporary LEGO haunted house. That speaks to the way we have culturally shifted our ideas about fear.  Likewise, juxtaposing the press kit from the '80s movie The Legend of Billie Jean alongside an early 19th century ceramic sculpture of Joan of Arc burning at the stake draws a weird parallel about how we’ve come to view feminism. These moments of looking back to define or reimagine the present have always been important to me.
Is there anything you collect yourself?
As seen in the installation on view at the Bass, I collect a lot of odd things—bird taxidermy, vintage Halloween ephemera, spirit photography, and Victorian era mourning art, a particular favorite of mine. All of the objects feel like an extension of my own work, and they're almost like a catalog of inspiration. I also collect contemporary art, but I decided to omit that from the exhibition. There were only a few works by dead artists. The one exception to that is AA Bronson, the only surviving member of General Idea. I own a few things by him.
What artists have inspired you the most?
Joseph Beuys, Félix González-Torres, Bas Jan Ader, David Milne, Odilon Redon, Whistler, Matisse, de Kooning, Monet, Joan Mitchell, WarholKara WalkerMcDermott & McGough, Caspar David Friedrich, Charles Addams, Rachel Feinstien, and Cecily Brown. Most recently, I've gotten interested in Marc Camille Chaimowicz and General Idea.   
Earlier this year, you were an artist in residence at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa. What was it like to work in the same place that Donald Judd, a very different artist, once worked?
I did drink the Kool-Aid a bit while I was there, but Marfa can become a bit like the "Dollywood" of Minimalism after two months. I did love it, and I certainly found inspiration there, just maybe not from Judd. Between the landscape, crazy weather, mystery lights, haunted Chinati buildings, and Texas folklore, there was a lot to look to for inspiration apart from Minimalism. I’m sure Judd found the same things appealing. He just translated them in a very different way then myself.  
As a member of the Miami-based art community, how would you say that Art Basel Miami Beach has impacted the Miami art scene? How has it changed what it means to be a Miami-based artist?
Frankly, despite the valiant efforts of some institutions and private collectors, the impact of the fair has been an annual short-term economic boom in the first week of December for Miami. As for what it means to be a Miami-based artist, there are a handful of talented artists still making their home in Miami, but the moniker of “Miami artist” has been something to break away from, rather than something to cherish. It’s symptomatic of a city in growth, and I hope there is less animosity now than there was brewing in the air when the fair started a few years back. The fact is that the art world is no different from any other industry, and if you're lazy, being in Miami isn’t going to have any more of an effect on your career then if you were in Boise, Idaho. I’m sure artists there are working really hard, too. Maybe Art Basel should start a fair there. Art Basel Boise, anyone? 
A few years back you also opened a studio in Detroit. What led you to pick the famously ruinous former industrial capital as a site to make art?
I had Miami fatigue—and there was also lots of space and quiet time in Detroit. 
What are you working on now?
I’m currently obsessing over the world of decorative arts, particularly as it emerged in America around the time of Whistler's Peacock Room. In the past year and a half, I dipped into making folding screens, and with this show at the Bass, it’s expanded into whole decorative environments. I don’t see why it’s viewed as negative to be making decorative works. Even the occupational title of "interior decorator" has been replaced by "interior designer." I'm not certain how all this will end up in my work, but I’m excited to see where it leads. On the professional end, I have my first monograph being released by Rizzoli in the spring, along with two exhibitions around the same time—one at Victoria Miro in London, and the other at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong.


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