Miami-based painter Hernan Bas’s case-lined library at his Little Havana studio is full of curiosities and trinkets. But lately, the obsessive collector has slowed down. A little. “I ran out of space,” the 44-year-old says sadly. “Also, my boyfriend, Peter, was kind of done with my maximalist approach to life.”
Atop the cupboards walks a menagerie of stuffed birds and a javelin in the shape of a pig. Inside are various found photographs, a vintage 1930s fighter pilot mask, a ceramic Loch Ness monster and a shelf of German papier-mâché Halloween pumpkins from the 1800s. I was 19, but my brother gave me one for Christmas last year and it didn’t fit in the closet. You reach a limit. For example, how many ghost photos do you need? I have eight, that’s enough. These collections of “oddities” and “weird trinkets” are all tied to Bas’s idiosyncratic artistic universe. Pumpkins feature in one of Bas’s paintings from 2014, alongside ghosts made from sheets.
Over the past 20 years, Bas has created intricate and intriguing paintings of attractive young men, usually in fantastical or surreal settings. They varied from lush, bird-studded Florida landscapes (tropical depression2015) to the pieces of Memphis Milano design furniture (Living in Memphis, 2014). Each presents a lexicon of curious motifs: flamingos, snakes and spooky houses; a shark or a giant clam shell.
“If I need a vase for the background, I’ll literally go to 1stdibs and find one,” Bas says. Other times, his research takes him elsewhere. “A few years ago I was doing a painting that involved a guy holding a hammerhead shark, which led me to all these weird Pinterest pages called Hot Guys Holding Fish… fully clothed hot guys. Holding fish.
Bas’s new exhibition has just opened at the Victoria Miro. The artist first exhibited with the London gallery in 2004 – the same year he was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York, then the youngest artist in its history. Today, his work is in museum collections across the United States and he is represented by several heavyweight galleries, including Perrotin and Lehmann Maupin. “He is getting better and better at painting,” says Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro. “When we were talking about this new exhibition, Hernan said, ‘I want to do a series of large, museum-quality paintings’ – and he did.”
The new works in the exhibition are both a continuation of his practice and a departure. The male figures remain at the dawn of virility, but there is less anguish, less languor. His imaginary characters are chosen as artists in a series entitled The Conceptualists. Gently teasing the characters’ lofty artistic pursuits (like painting only with water from Niagara Falls), the works are playful but not mocking, arching but tender.
Each character in The Conceptualists has a story. When Bas talks about them, it’s as if they’re people he knows. “He’s really into Egyptology,” he says of concept artist No. 5, who spends his time gilding his dying houseplants. “I literally dreamed of these characters and what they would do – and realized that they were getting more and more involved in eccentric activities. It occurred to me that if you just called them artists , they would get a free pass to be as quirky as they wanted.
In an accompanying limited-edition book, artist and writer Linda Yablonsky created more stories. “I basically gave him carte blanche,” Bas says of the lyrics that imagine names, stories, and habits for the characters. “Sometimes I just gave her the title of the painting and she ran with it. In a way, the book becomes a conceptual project in itself. A key inspiration for the new work was the 2019 mockumentary Waiting for the artist. “It’s Cate Blanchett as Marina Abramović, and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Bas says. In his own soft dig into performance art, concept artist #9 creates a parking lot set of homemade spaceships, while #8 has an earthly practice of marbleizing countryside puddles with food colorings.
Bas’s artistic journey began in North Florida. His mother and musician father emigrated from Cuba to the United States. One of six siblings, he spent his first six years living in a place he calls “a bizarre, backward world of woods in the middle of nowhere that informed many of my weird interests in the paranormal. I carried that with me in mind in Miami. In high school, he studied life drawing and painting, “but I became more of a photography geek,” he says. He went to art school in New York, but was asked to leave after one term for not showing up. “I think I had had enough,” he recalled, “and, being a bit of a Holden Caulfield weirdo, I just wanted to do my own thing.” Back in Miami – “I was broke and had nowhere to go” – and without access to a photography studio, he began to draw.
“At that time he was incredibly shy,” recalls Scott Wright, who was introduced to Bas’s work in the late ’90s by Miami’s top collectors, the Rubells. “Usually if I call an unknown, unsigned artist and tell him I’d like to come to his studio, he jumps on it. But with Hernan, it took about two years to reach him, and then when he finally agreed to meet me, it was at a downtown Miami snooker bar at midnight. It was the weirdest studio visit. It was quite a process to get to know him and watch the work.
The star of this new exhibition, suggests Scott Wright, is the almost 5m wide diptych titled Concept Artist #7. “Compositionally, it’s an amazing painting,” he says of the interior cat-studded scene that alludes to Andy Warhol’s 1950s artist’s book. 25 cats name Sam and a blue cat, and focuses on a man dyeing one of the cats blue. “In my mind, this guy is obsessed – like me to some extent – with this book,” says Bas, whose additional Warhol references include a Brillo box and a red sofa – the type Warhol was often photographed on at the Factory. . The painting’s silver leaf windows are a tribute to the silver walls of the famous New York haunt.
Some of Bas’s work sparkles with an erotic undertone. While some of his previous series have explicitly explored the queer experience, he adds, “I don’t necessarily always think the characters are gay, although people are used to saying that.” He has spoken in the past of how, growing up, he developed “a strange connection between otherworldly and paranormal activity and homosexuality – the idea of being otherworldly from a weird way”. Of the new paintings, he says, “There’s a bit of semi-autobiography in each of them.”
Bas’s words in his artist statement could also be said of himself: “My characters have entered a phase of self-acceptance. Their unusual interests are no longer in the shadows and they seem to be at home in their curious homemade worlds. It’s a change that stems, he says, from the death of his mother in 2020. “I just had this moment, like, the consequences be damned. Risks are the name of the game. I think I can still push myself a lot more.
Next up is a show at Lehmann Maupin in New York, which opens May 11. For the first time, Bas will continue this series in a new set of paintings. “I’ve wanted to do this series for so long that I have a huge notebook of ideas,” says Bas, who is in his studio from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days. He is currently renovating his Miami home – a 1930s building on the edge of Little Havana – and recently completed renovations to the Vancouver home he and his partner bought in March this year.
In terms of design, Bas says he’s leaning toward “a lot of Shaker furniture” right now. “And, like most art kids, I’m still a fan of all that 80s Memphis Milano stuff.” In his studio there is a circular First chair by Memphis designer Michele De Lucchi, while on the wall there is a Warhol silkscreen print by Joseph Beuys. It also has some individual Warhol’s prints 25 cats, while the book as a whole is on its collector’s wish list. “Now if I splurge on anything, it’s usually art,” Bas says. His latest purchase, at a “random auction house,” is a “strange crown by a self-taught artist called Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, who lived in a cabin in Wisconsin and made little thrones out of chicken bones and stuff like that. It’s really weird. It certainly feels like it belongs in Hernan Bas’s universe. But weird, as we both agree, is definitely a good thing.”
Hernan Bas: The Conceptualists is at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1, until 14 January. Paintings, $325,000 to $750,000; works on paper, $30,000 to $60,000