Hernan Bas’s Homecoming

By Kat Herriman

Hernan Bas standing inside his studio

Hernan Bas in his studio

For the last two and a half years, Hernan Bas has been working away on “The Conceptualists.” It is the longest period the Miami-based contemporary artist has ever devoted to a single body of work during his two-decade career, and it’s just made its Art Basel Week debut at The Bass.

“The Conceptualists” is a milestone for Bas. It is the only exhibition the painter has ever mounted without curatorial substitutions or edits. This makes the show an especially personal one, and that is even before taking into consideration the pressure of the added foot traffic Art Basel and snowbird season bring to Miami Beach.

Hernan Bas painting of an ice sculptor at work

Bas’s Conceptual Artist #2 (the ice sculptor: he exclusively carves objects which hold ice), 2021

The content of “The Conceptualists” is as personal as its stakes. It is Bas’s first dive into institutional critique, albeit a jocular strain focused on the double-edged sword emboldened by conceptualism’s open-ended definition of what qualifies as art. In the past, Bas has mined the literary canon for inspiration for his multi-layered portraits of young men, generally showing a particular favoritism for the romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with an emphasis on queer narratives and archetypes. For “The Conceptualists,” Bas didn’t consult his extensive library. Instead, he plumbed the language floating around him as a way of exploring how the art world romanticizes itself with its own jargon. “The Conceptualists” are dedicated to different art-world terms, like “land art” or “endurance art,” each of which Bas renders as an imaginary figure—a patron saint in acrylic on canvas. There is a cheekiness to these larger-than-life character studies—and an ambiguity. Bas is not here to tell us what is right or wrong. He is holding a mirror up to an ideal so we can better see it.

Hernan Bas painting of person in lily pond holding an origami flower

Bas’s Conceptual Artist #17 (With the aid of scissors, paper doilies and origami he elevates lily ponds to attract potential princes), 2023

“There’s a lot of humor in these works that I hope people pick up on,” Bas says, when asked about how one might begin to read “The Conceptualists.” He suggests writer David Sedaris’s bone-dry-wit could be a good pregame. He then goes on to draw a more direct connection to the characters—“the Flat Earthers, ufologists, and people who drill holes in their heads”—depicted in English author and Earth mysteries movement founder John Michell’s nonfiction, “Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions.” What Bas’s imaginary subjects share most in common with Michell’s real ones is their conviction in their beliefs. And this fervor is not something Bas is necessarily making fun of. Instead, he is interested in how conviction manifests, and the paradoxes it generates along the way. For instance, the way that conceptual art is at once the freest form of expression, and simultaneously the most vulnerable to criticism. Bas revels in how opposing truths can reinforce one another to create unlikely typologies.

Hernan Bas painting of person in a home full of houseplants

Bas’s Conceptual Artist #5 (A budding gilder, his dying houseplants get ‘The Midas Touch’), 2022

Despite the shift in subject matter, those familiar with Bas’s saturated world—where no square inch is left unadorned with detail­ —will be able to recognize the artist’s hand immediately at The Bass. There are passages in the work that approach realism; there are others where the brushwork gets so loose, it begins to float into abstraction. Bas is fluent in paint. He knows its shorthand and where to cut to the chase. He also knows where to wax poetic. If Bas were a novelist, one might refer to him as a stylist—someone who is able to take on any narrative and subsume it into his voice. It is therefore surprising to learn that when he embarks on generating a new body of work, source imagery can come from anywhere and is often a crime of opportunity. “Anything I come across may end up useful as a reference, whether it is a direct source or jumping-off point towards a new idea,” Bas explains. “If I’m touring an allegedly haunted house, you better believe I’m walking out of there with at least 50 photos.” He adds: “A lot of the research phase when I’m developing one of these ‘imagined’ artist portraits is hunting for obscure practices, odd activities that can become a part of an artist’s endeavors.”

Bas wants to see how far the rules go until they break. In doing so, he asks us to imagine a time and space beyond them.


Portrait courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London; Photos by Silvia Ros; images courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.


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