At the Aventura Mall in the Louis Vuitton store, Hernan Bas has created a sculptural installation specifically for the luxury brand’s location. Using canvas covered in Vuitton’s iconic monogram symbols, Bas made up bundles — hobo sacks, really, or bindles — and attached them to birch branches, to come up with A Traveler. He’s playing with two extreme ends of travel accessories — a Vuitton suitcase and a bag on a stick.
It’s one of the numerous places across the globe that the Miami-bred artist will be shown this year, signaling the meteoric rise of the 34-year-old, former New World School of the Arts student.
Over the next six months alone, Bas, best known for his beautifully brushed, dreamy, melancholy paintings, will blanket three continents with his work. Until April 21, the major New York gallery Lehmann Maupin is exhibiting a solo show of his newest paintings, called “Occult Contemporary.” Also through April, the Kunstverein museum in Hannover, Germany, is giving the artist a survey of works spanning the last five years. Then he will pop up in a solo show in Seoul, South Korea at the PKM Gallery, which has on its roster such giants in contemporary art as Olafur Eliasson and Bruce Nauman. Bas will return to Europe, to Galerie Perrotin in Paris, and wind up back in Miami for a new show at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery.
These are significant shows at trend-setting locations. Most artists could only dream of just one of these exhibits in one year.
Bas is viewing it all with a large dose of humility. “The exhibition at the Kunstverein Hannover — from what I’ve been told — has been received rather well by the local community, It has been a while since the Kunstverein has mounted a classic, traditional painting show and the public has seemingly embraced it.”
So what is it about this hometown talent that has caught so many eyes, leading to his work to catch on fire? From people near and far, the simple answer is this: Bas is a painter’s painter, whose technique, color palette, skill and story lines jump from the frame immediately and attract the viewer.
But to love it, people first had to see it.
The director of the powerhouse London gallery Victoria Miro, Glenn Scott Wright, ran into work from Bas back in 2002, when the Rubell family of the Rubells showed off examples of their latest acquisitions to him.
“I went out to dinner with Don, Mera and Jason Rubell, who brought a whole selection of works on paper they had just acquired and spread them out on the table in a Japanese restaurant,” he recalls. “I remember worrying we might get some soy sauce on them. I loved the work and called Hernan.”
Wright says Bas was hard to pursue, but he persisted, and that would result in a huge breakthrough for Bas — a solo show at Victoria Miro in 2005. “The response in London and throughout Europe has been wholly enthusiastic from the very first moment we showed him,” Wright says.
That special collecting relationship with the Rubells would pay off again a few years later, with Bas’ museum show, “Hernan Bas: Works from the Rubell Family Collection,” at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009. In between those two, Bas had already become a Miami favorite through his shows at Snitzer, the local gallerist who has known him and his work since his New World days. “The bottom line is, he is a masterful painter,” Snitzer says. Last December, Snitzer included a huge canvas from Bas at his booth at Art Basel Miami Beach (Snitzer has been one of the few local galleries in the fair throughout the years), prominently displayed on the outer wall, which became a Basel talking point.
Silvia Karman Cubina, now director of the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, was asked to lead the Louis Vuitton Art Talk in March at the villa of The Kampong, done in conjunction with the commissioned Bas exhibit (Vuitton inaugurated its Miami art program last year, with a collaborative sculpture and art talk from Brazilian artist Vik Muniz).
Cubina, too, has been familiar with Bas’ work from early on, showing him in 2002 at the now-defunct Moore Space, which she helped run. “Nobody was doing painting back then,” she says. Amid all the video and multi-media, here was something that stood out “as it was honest, it had integrity.” Cubina also points to the narrative in many of Bas’ works: “It’s universal; people like the stories.”
Those stories in previous years often harkened back to a romantic era gone by; in these painted tales, lonely, waifish boys on the cusp of adulthood seem to struggle with identity and a future. As Cubina describes, there is a “soap-operatic” quality to the imagery. His latest paintings continue to be similarly evocative, but “more edited, with less that is obvious,” says Cubina about his trend toward more abstraction in his brush strokes. “His work has become very sophisticated.”
Examples of those more sophisticated narratives are hanging at Lehmann Maupin this month. They “will be new to viewers,” says Bethanie Brady at the New York gallery. “These works draw from the artist’s interest in the occult and supernatural, depicting the devil as the main subject. ... Hernan also expands on his technique incorporating silk screening, airbrush, and block printing into the paintings. On the other hand, viewers will find the vast landscapes and fantastic imagery familiar.”
How does the artist himself describe his recent forays, in theme, style and technique? These days he makes Detroit his home, which is where the canvases for “Occult Contemporary” were formed. He elaborated on some of these works. The title of the exhibit “is a play on the term Adult Contemporary, a genre equivalent to elevator music,” Bas says. “For me it is a moment culturally in which the devil could easily hide in plain sight, the occult more than ever is a lighthearted affair — children go to witches schools, vampires in high school, psychic children and ghost hunting all over the television.”
It’s almost a lament, a feeling from the artist that both light and dark are essential in making up the human condition. “While I love the proliferation of all things supernatural, there is a longing for those things to have the power to frighten and possess they way they could a century ago.”
As for changes in his works, Bas points out the obvious: Rather than small paintings, he is now creating large-scale canvases, and blurring somewhat those narratives when he broadly paints them on a wall, rather than an easel.
And as for the next thematic chapter? “I did just finish reading a great book called Secure the Shadow about the history of death in photography, in specific, post-mortem photography. I don’t know that any of that will translate into a work, but the idea of capturing a character who has died and posing them as though they were simply asleep is definitely interesting.”
Whether incorporating figures who are asleep, dead, or ghosts, the appeal of Bas’ paintings has left a wide swath. “Simply, Hernan is one of the most gifted and celebrated young painters,” says the associate director Jiyoung Lee at Seoul’s PKM gallery, which will be giving Bas far-reaching exposure in Asia with a 2012 solo show. “His works not only reveal elaborated painting techniques but also … his very sensitive and unique visual languages that delve into themes of nostalgia, romanticism, and the absurd make his works more compelling.”
For Miamians who might be feeling left out, Bas’ installation at Vuitton in Aventura will up until November.
When seeing the artist’s exploration of journeys — through the past, in life and in other worlds — “A Traveler” becomes part of a continuum. “I’m naturally drawn to things with history and energy, so when I began the project I initially studied Louis Vuitton as a brand – steeped with history — as well as a cultural entity,” explains Bas. “One notion kept coming to the surface: the art of travel. Trying to think of how my own work could marry into that world led me to consider the question of how a character in one of my paintings would travel. … I simply wanted to place or elevate even the roughest form of travel to a luxury level.”