Hernan Bas on the New Paintings He Made during Quarantine
Portrait of Hernan Bas by Silvia Ros. © Silvia Ros. Courtesy of the artist.
For more than 20 years, the American painter Hernan Bas has been painting the supernatural, the paranormal—and sometimes, the downright strange. His appetite for the arcane is the pulmonary of his larger-than-life scale paintings; he’s been inspired by anything from ghost hunters and vampires to people who build aquariums in their basements. A figurative painter with a queer gaze, Bas creates ambivalent scenes that evoke Edward Hopper and Edvard Munch, Otto Preminger and Oscar Wilde—but with a twist. That might come from “deep dives into the weirdness of the internet,” as Bas recently told me over the phone. “I like to put a spotlight on the obscure,” he added.
When Bas, now in his early forties, was starting out as an artist in the late 1990s, he was painting the same skinny, white, nerdy young guys who continue to be the protagonists of his work today. At the time, these men were far from the macho masculine ideal of the mainstream, but over the years they’ve become part of our visual everyday. With their watery eyes, prominent cheekbones, and waif-like, androgynous bodies, we’re likely to encounter their likenesses on a billboard campaign for a global brand.
Hernan Bas, Nectar (or the hummingbird enthusiast), 2020. Photo by Silvia Ros. Photo © Silvia Ros. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
Bas has always painted these men based on “what I find attractive”—using references from fashion editorials and random image searches—but the fact that these men are celebrated for their beauty and “how that is a trap in itself” is also interesting to him. Their brooding expressions—sometimes based on how male models are typically portrayed—embeds another narrative in Bas’s work about masculinity and the effect of the male gaze. It’s as if when men are objectified by the gaze they need to appear to actively resist it.
Previously, these characters were on the cusp sexually, physically, and intellectually, and thus “full of angst and ambiguity, in a limbo stage,” as Bas put it. He saw them as versions of the 17-year-old Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Yet in Bas’s latest exhibition at Perrotin in Paris, “Creature Comforts,” there’s a distinct evolution in the way he depicts these men. “Their eccentricities are not hidden anymore,” Bas said. “They’re relishing their oddness and queerness, they’re more confident, they have more of a grip on who they are—and that’s been a fun leap for me.” In one of the new works, Dinner hour at the little shop of horrors (all works 2020), a man hauls a hunk of meat in the air in a botanical nursery—apparently so as to feed his plants. “There’s no reference for that,” Bas said. “How could there be!”
Hernan Bas, An aversion to arrows (Tunnel of Love), 2020. Photo by Silvia Ros. Photo © Silvia Ros. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
In another of the 13 new paintings, An aversion to arrows (Tunnel of Love), a solo figure sits on a carnival ride. Bas made the work after finding hours of point-of-view footage online of people riding these forgotten fairground amusements, preserving another fast-disappearing corner of cultural history. “There are very few of these carnival rides left,” Bas said. “You travel up this muddy path through this horrible fake wilderness, but they used to be seen as a rite of passage, that if you survived it, that was part of becoming a man.”
It’s a classic Bas image: The ornate, colorful, riotous scene surrounding his character is at odds with the solitary man, the carriages beside him all deserted. He looks soberly up towards something we can’t, and won’t ever, be able to see.
It’s an eerie tension that is replicated in other works: In The hot seat, a guy with a snake coiled around his neck stares back at us, nonplussed. “I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I really like to play with that tension,” Bas said. And he’s a master of it. In Three Vampires, there’s a Black Mirror moment, as a perfect male specimen sits at a bar as a bat sucks blood from his arm; in a cabinet behind him hang bags of blood, labeled according to type. These preternatural men seem suddenly aware of their mortality, in a world fixated with fertility, virility, and youth.
Hernan Bas, Three Vampires, 2020. Photo by Silvia Ros. Photo © Silvia Ros. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
The new works certainly have an aura of the post-apocalyptic about them, unsurprisingly as they were made during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and social upheaval. Bas was moving only between the eight blocks from his Miami apartment to his studio, from the internet to his imagination. He also lost his mother to coronavirus earlier this year, and there is a palpable sense of melancholy and foreboding in the new work—but that’s perhaps always been present in Bas’s paintings. Now there’s also a feeling of unrestrained flamboyance and acceptance, too.
There’s no doubt viewers now will draw parallels between these paintings and the pandemic. But for Bas—who jokes he was practicing self-isolation long before it became the norm—they develop more enduring themes and interests. The artist, as much as his characters, is reveling in the madness and the esoteric in a world that now looks closer to the one he depicts. If that unsettles the viewer, or makes them laugh, so much the better, but Bas simply flicks the switch and ignites whatever is lurking in the recesses. And if you’re curious about his titles, try googling them.