Visual Arts

Hernan Bas exhibit: Youth and uncertainty rendered confidently

‘The Swan Prince’ by Hernan Bas
‘The Swan Prince’ by Hernan Bas

The early works of one of the great artistic talents to emerge from Miami in the past few years are the subject of a new solo exhibition at YoungArts, “New Perfumes, Larger Blossoms, Pleasures Untasted: Hernan Bas and the Natural World.”

Bas, a YoungArts graduate in Visual Arts, was one of the first artists to gain international recognition from the recent arts renaissance in Miami. Working predominantly in painting, he became known for his depictions of adolescence inspired by classical imagery and literary movements.

He maintains residences in Miami and Detroit. “I spend a good deal of time in Detroit, but I have a studio in Miami as well,” he wrote. “Detroit offered affordable spaces that are increasingly hard to come by in Miami, and it’s nice to get away from the craziness that living here can stir up.”

Early in his career, the artist caught the attention of major gallerists and collectors, including Donald and Mera Rubell, who have since acquired a large body of his work and staged shows drawing from their collection — including the one at YoungArts.

Mera Rubell says she considers Bas’ work to be “extremely personal” and has been impressed by his ability to communicate through painting his own personal challenges.

“Talented artists, through their vulnerability and sharing, teach us a lot about ourselves, and that’s what Hernan continues to do,” Rubell said.

Throughout his career, Bas has grappled in his works with coming of age and sexual identity, often depicting young boys on the cusp of adulthood. Through his imperfect yet fastidious painting style and broad color palette, he casts a sentimental gaze on youths during a bittersweet time of their lives, an awkward phase where a boy’s desires come to a head with his sexual identity.

Bas, who was born in Miami in 1978, completed the YoungArts program in 1996. He says the experience was a turning point in his career.

“I felt a bit isolated in Miami, and it was great to see that kids like me existed all over the country,” Bas wrote in an email, describing the experience of meeting the trove of talented young people at YoungArts. “The workshops, teachers and mentors were great, but the shared camaraderie between all the kids that the ‘arts’ are important [to] is what makes it really special.”

“Melancholic” is a characteristic Bas says many have assigned to his work, and the description is apt. His figures are contemplative and wistful, their faces tinged with longing. It’s perhaps most evident in The Swan Prince, a painting that depicts swans in a lake towing a clam-shell boat with a young boy who wears a forlorn expression, jaded to the beauty surrounding him.

The scenes Bas depicts are not rooted in a specific place or time; his works appear to span centuries with references to Greek mythology and Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic literature (with anachronistic references often in the same scenes). But often, those references are muted or absent, as if the events depicted are taking place in a world where dandies, Greek gods and modern-day high school kids are one and the same.

The exhibition explores the artist’s depictions of the “decadent body” amid the natural environment with figures often engaging with the nature around them. Many works place his trademark boys in idyllic and dreamy scenes, frolicking in the water in Apollo with Daphne as a Boy or brooding among a bed of flowers as the shirtless figure in pants as shown in The Blue Line.

Other times, his works depict the disquieting beauty of nature. In Vesuvius, boys at the seashore look on as the volcano erupts and await their untimely fates. In Floating in the Dead Sea with Ghost Ship Pirated by Hedi Slimane, a figure rests on the surface of the water as he is washed away.

The most mythic of these works is the 12-foot-long The Great Barrier Wreath. It is an intricate portrait brimming with dandy aesthetics as harlequins and others in period wardrobe mingle through the hillsides and lake shore among flamingos and swans. It’s a stunning work done in the style of Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s large landscapes from the 15th century.

The works on display may be familiar to those who have followed Bas’ career: Many were featured in a monumental solo exhibition that was staged at the Rubell Family Collection in 2007 and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 2009.

While that show was particularly large for a young artist (he was just 29 when it opened), the YoungArts show, curated by Pérez Art Museum Miami director Thom Collins, pares the work down to its essentials. Gone are the large-scale installation works of those earlier shows; remaining are many of paintings, drawings and works on paper as well as a video.

The show is the first in a series of exhibitions by YoungArts, called “Junctures,” that aims to look back at the early careers of prominent Visual Arts alumni from the organization’s mentoring and scholarship program.

Bas clearly has evolved since he created the works on display at YoungArts; his canvas has grown larger and his themes have matured. But he says he is still a young painter by most standards and he hasn’t begun to really reflect on his body of work.

“Ask me this again in a decade and I think I’ll have a clearer picture of where I was then as opposed to now,” Bas wrote.

If you go

What: “New Perfumes, Larger Blossoms, Pleasures Untasted: Hernan Bas and the Natural World,” selections from the Rubell Collection

When: Through Nov. 14

Where: YoungArts Gallery, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, Mondays closed, weekends by appointment only

More information: info@youngarts.org or 800-970-2787

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