Hernan Bas: The Conceptualists at The Bass Museum Of Art, Miami Beach

By January 22, 2024
Installation View of Hernan Bas: The Conceptualists at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach. Photography by Zaire Aranguren and image courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach.

In a major new solo exhibition, entitled The Conceptualists, Miami-based, Latino artist Hernan Bas offers viewers a series of thirty-five large-scale portraits featuring imaginary queer male conceptual artists. These figures, whom Bas has assigned numbered monikers, are portrayed engaging in idiosyncratic, obsessive practices in the name of conceptual art. At the exhibition entrance, one encounters Conceptual artist #1 (2021), who, according to Bas, “exclusively mixes his paints with water from Niagara Falls.”

A few steps further into the gallery, one sees Conceptual artist #5 (2022), a “budding gilder” who applies genuine gold leaf (a medium Bas also uses in this portrait) to his domestic, wilted greenery. Rather amusingly, Conceptual artist #5 glares challengingly at the viewer, as if daring them to question the legitimacy of his art practice.

Hernan Bas, A conceptual artist #5 (A budding glider, his dying houseplants get ‘The Midas Touch’), 2022, acrylic, genuine gold leaf, and silver leaf on linen, 72 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, and the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach.

Bas’ conceptual artists are often situated in a performance-based mise-en-scène, where they are surrounded by objects, tools, and props that further delineate, and magnify, the nature of their curious artistic pursuits. Though some of Bas’ protagonists make use of conventional fine art techniques (i.e., drawing, painting, and sculpture), more frequently, they conduct strange experiments, or engage in occult activities, that reflect Bas’ own documented interests in the paranormal. One striking example of this is Conceptual artist #20 (2023), who devotes his artistic energies to “acting as his own receiver, he’s been seeking a signal from the airwaves for over a decade.”

Curatorially, most of Bas’ works are arranged in groups of three in chapel-like rooms that line a long, central corridor within the main gallery. These intimate side galleries allow viewers to connect with Bas’ characters one-on-one, and closely examine each painting’s dynamic and meticulous composition, sweeping color palette, and signature application of fluorescent hues. The side galleries also provide a contemplative atmosphere for discovering and appreciating Bas’ wicked, subterranean sense of humor, and his love for each of his protagonists, who—to some extent—reflect certain aspects of his own identity, both as a gay man, and as a conceptual artist.

The relationship between the artist and the subjects of his portraits is made most explicit in the final, three-panel work at the very end of the gallery. In this monumental triptych, entitled Conceptual artist #37: he exclusively paints portraits of conceptual artists who have never existed (2023), Bas portrays a version of himself in his studio surrounded by several, unfinished works intended for this exhibition. According to the curator, Dr. James Voorhies, The Conceptualists is organized “a lot like a sentence” that shows “how a body of work composed of many parts (i.e., the paintings) can become a singular work, in this case the exhibition with its narrative, concluding in the final composite painting.” While it may be tempting to interpret The Conceptualists as merely reflecting Bas’ interest in pop culture, influential gay male artists (e.g., Andy Warhol and David Hockney), queerness, and the paranormal, this exhibition also addresses problems in society and conceptual art. Bas’ paintings ask: How do we define conceptual art and what are its limits? Bas’ canvasses suggest that artistic play and experimentation, including weird, seemingly meaningless activities, all constitute legitimate forms of conceptual art production. Thus, Bas’ individual portraits, and the exhibition as a whole, move in and out of the categorical realm of idea-based conceptual art. Bas’ works in this exhibition are themselves compelling enough that viewers may conclude that this question of whether they qualify as conceptual art, or not, is redundant.

Installation View of Hernan Bas: The Conceptualists at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach. Photography by Zaire Aranguren and image courtesy of the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach.

Hernan Bas: The Conceptualists is on view at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach through May 5, 2024.

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