Hernan Bas: Developing TiME LiFE
On ViewLehmann Maupin
Amidst the rise of online viewing rooms for shows we might not otherwise see, Lehmann Maupin made the decision to provide us backgrounds to shows we have. In Developing TiME LiFE, the gallery presents studies (available for sale) as well as information from Hernan Bas about the process for his most recent fall 2019 show. Time Life riffed on the cultish fascination with “Mysteries of the Unknown,” as the Time Life series dubbed it, but other paintings reflected on the times and lives of our own strange world. In this drawing back of the curtain on an artist’s process, Lehmann Maupin reveals some of the pleasures that industry professionals have in their work: conversations with artists about how and what and why are not only intellectually stimulating but fun. Bas adopts history along with tangential areas of American culture, serious stuff beside chance encounters as the material for his paintings and Developing TiME LiFE makes evident the joy as well as the intensity in his practice.
Developing TiME LiFE starts with the research that Bas did for his major work of the fall show, The Sip In (2019). It addresses the moment on April 21, 1966 when Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and Randy Wicker entered Julius, in the West Village, and announced they were gay. Since homosexuality was considered disorderly conduct at that time, the rules of the New York State Liquor Authority required that bartenders refuse them service. Inspired by the Civil Rights sit-ins, they wanted to push against these discriminatory regulations. John D’Emilio, a historian of gay rights, suggests their legal battle helped the gay rights movement gain the confidence to fight back during the Stonewall Riots a few years later.
The studies reveal Bas’s compositional development, and the accompanying text describes his research process with a light, conversational tone. In a newspaper photograph of the sit-in, the bar divides the image with the customers on the left. That angle didn’t work for the effect Bas wanted. To recreate history, Bas turned to Google Street View to discover a layout and decor of the bar that he could use for a painterly perspective. The long wooden bar stretches across the lower half of the painting, dividing the viewer from the customers. The three men sit there, awkwardly looking in different directions, uncomfortable heroes. A man with a martini gazes at the viewer, ignoring what’s happening to his right. We stand in the ethical and legal shoes of the bartender. A white glove suspended over a pint glass is all that remains of him. Bas used his own, “modeling the very hand that refused three gay men a drink.” That disembodied hand is the fantasy Bas contributes to bring our attention to the missing facts in so many histories.
In the background for A Moment Eclipsed (2019), Bas describes his use of Tumblr accounts and collection of vintage taxidermy, as well as how he creates reference photographs using props and his own body to ensure a sensibility in the final work. He spent hours immersed in Pinterest and Reddit pages, discovering the specialized world of fish lovers, for The GloFish Enthusiast (2019). The young man in a basement surrounded by aquariums of fish genetically modified to glow under black light is worrying. The artist incorporated black light paint into the work so that it glows with a kind of raver, underground aesthetic, which only adds to the sense of concern about what this young man is about—innocuous or dangerously obsessive? The protagonists in Bas’s works make for unlikely heroes, but his paintings hint that these parallel lives may indeed merit equal recognition. Power, money, and celebrity aren’t conveyors of truth, value, or relevance. Using a journalistic approach to the genre of history painting allows Bas to suggest it might be worthwhile to learn about the lives of people we find weird.
Since his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Bas has been widely acclaimed for his paintings of sissies and dandies in lush rooms and magical landscapes, his assortment of cultural references contributing quirky allusions. Here, however, the figures are a little older. They have commitments, a stake in their world. The sense of loneliness across his works now seems more pointed, as if our attention might need to shift to areas we prefer to ignore.
I got a chance to speak with Bas during the fall exhibit and know that other works in that show, like The Occult Enthusiast (2019) and Conspiracy Screen (2019), have enormous research and effort built into them though neither is included in Developing TiME LiFE. The notion of powerful players controlling people, situations, and information towards their own ends is fundamental to the research that undergirds conspiracy theories. I would have enjoyed learning more about the development of The Pundit and The Great and Powerful OZ's AV Guy (Or, Behind the Other Curtain) (2019) given last year’s saga of corruption at media outlets. As Ronan Farrow delineated, left-leaning NBC News manipulates and kills stories as much as The National Enquirer. Lehmann Maupin’s decision to showcase studies with the artist’s commentary on his process works so well that it cultivates a desire to know even more. This chance to get a detailed look behind the scenes is particularly fitting for Bas but should attract another layer of appreciation for any of the artists that they feature next.