Hernan Bas Opens the Doors to His Miami Studio Ahead of Major Exhibition at The Bass
The museum show spotlights the whimsical, poetic, and deeply imaginative worlds he evokes in an ambitious series of offbeat portraits
At his studio in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood earlier this fall, Hernan Bas was sketching out the largest painting of his career. Measuring 9 by 21 feet, the work was conceived as the culmination of “The Conceptualists,” a series of 35 eccentric portraits he began in 2021, each featuring a protagonist absorbed in an obsessive, unconventional creative pursuit that could be viewed as conceptual art.
In the new painting, essentially a self-portrait, the central figure is a male painter in his studio, surrounded by sketches and props recognizable as elements from earlier works in the series. “He exclusively paints fake portraits of conceptual artists that never existed,” Bas says of the piece, titled Conceptual Artist #36.
An admirer of conceptualists such as Félix González-Torres, who made romantic gestures with just a pile of candy, or Richard Long, who laid leaves on stones in the woods, Bas is playing the role of conceptual artist while indulging in the kind of poetic, quirky narrative painting he has honed over a career spanning more than two decades.
“The Conceptualists,” shown in part at the Victoria Miro gallery in London in 2022 and at Lehmann Maupin in New York in early 2023, is now being brought together as a complete series for the first time at The Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach. On view through May 5, 2024, it’s the artist’s largest museum show to date in Miami, where he was born and has lived most of his life.
“Viewers are introduced visually to these incredible characters with idiosyncratic behaviors that are operating under the generous space of conceptual art,” says James Voorhies, The Bass curator who organized the show. The lineup includes a Popsicle stick sculptor who consumes frozen treats in order to build his own coffin, as well as the founder and sole member of the Buzz Off Initiative, who spends his nights mailing everyone in his zip code a single dead fly.
“It’s not about making up an artist who’s a brilliant genius; it’s just about making up characters,” says Bas, who sometimes draws inspiration from his cabinet of curiosities spanning a studio wall and brimming with oddities that he has collected from shopping at thrift stores and online for 20 years.
His assortment of antique papier-mâché Halloween pumpkins was just a jumping-off point for the ideas in Conceptual Artist #25, whose subject makes self-portraits with fruit molds and leaves them for farmers to discover, in an act inspired by crop circles. A remote-controlled Loch Ness Monster, meanwhile, makes an appearance in Conceptual Artist #31, depicting a recent transplant from Scotland who’s taken the toy creature to Paris to terrorize visitors at the Tuileries Garden pond.
Bas’s wild imagination and gothic sensibility were fostered during his early childhood spent in the deep woods of northern Florida, where his parents—who came from Cuba following Castro’s takeover—moved the family. “It was a very bizarre place,” Bas remembers. “Talking about Bigfoot sightings, UFOs, and ghosts was normal to me.”
He made his first painting around the age of ten, buying supplies with his birthday money, and he attended high school at the rigorous New World School of the Arts in Miami. After a semester at Cooper Union in New York, he returned to Miami in 1997 and started working for the Rubell Family Collection. The influential collectors were among the few visitors to his first show, at Miami Dade College in 2000, and they were early supporters, acquiring a trove of works shown at their Miami space in 2007 that later traveled to the Brooklyn Museum.
Over the past two decades, the scale of the painter’s figures, mostly men and often viewed through a lens of queerness and nonconformity, has exploded dramatically from several inches to near life size. He also now relies less on existing narratives—whether The Hardy Boys series or the novels of 19th-century Decadent movement writer Joris-Karl Huysmans—than on what he pulls directly from his own head.
At The Bass, his epic composite painting will be installed at the end of a long central aisle, flanked by bays presenting each of the fictional artists, almost like MFA students in their studios. Bas likes the idea that visitors will come upon the final allegory and be able to draw connections to all the other paintings. “It’s all my brain being picked apart,” he says. “It’s almost like a Wizard of Oz moment.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2023/24 Winter Issue under the headline “Dear Mr. Fantas.” Subscribe to the magazine.