New York

Hernan Bas

Daniel Reich Gallery

Sometimes sadomasochistically charged, but more often suggesting the listless longeurs of love gone bad or unrequited lust, Hernan Bas’s new paintings continue to map a fantastical narrative territory populated exclusively by wan, usually male adolescents. Working on wood panels with a mixture of water-based oil, gouache, and acrylic—sometimes adulterated with glitter and tiny stones—Bas depicts a couple in a graveyard preparing to carry out a suicide pact (The Lovers of Lyons) (all works 2004); what might be the aftermath of a double murder (The Kept Boy); and a bunker or mine filled with fencers (For You It Has Come to This).

The twenty-six-year-old artist, whose work was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, also offers a tweaked take on Romanticism in several paintings of lone young men communing with a vaguely Disneyfied, Technicolor nature. While in the past Bas has based series on the Hardy Boys mysteries and Moby-Dick, here his inspirations seem more atomized: The works recall illustrations from early twentieth- century boy’s adventure stories, shot through with allusions to Dennis Cooper, the pre-Raphaelites, and other literary and art-historical sources.

Bas strikes an artful balance between the maudlin and the mischievous, the coolly blasé and the geekishly erudite, while treading the perilous line that separates “bad” painting from bad painting. He handles his medium with brash confidence, veering between loose expressiveness, rococo fussiness, and happy-little-tree Bob Ross realism. His figures are often stiffly and sketchily rendered—visual as well as psychic ciphers embedded in otherwise highly worked surfaces. Occasionally passages of what Clement Greenberg might have called “buckeye abstraction”—colorful, generically AbEx splashes and swirls—threaten to engulf them, as in Too Pretty, in which a young man shades his eyes from an incandescent conflagration of orange and violet streaks.

In two of the best paintings, Right Place Wrong Time (a boy with an umbrella standing beneath a stormy, van Gogh sky) and Fitting In (a boy standing on one leg amid a flock of flamingos), the compositions approach a rhythmic, allover quality. Paradoxically, the more he moves toward flatness and pattern, the more alive Bas’s paintings look, and the more his deliberately ham-fisted touches—like the stenciled vase that flies through the air in Telekinesis, spilling a bouquet of earnestly daubed pink-and-green flowers—achieve a sly hilarity.

Bas’s deskilled style supports the articulation of his sensibility, which might be called postcamp and which he himself has called “fag limbo” (a term elaborated by Wayne Koestenbaum in the 2004 Biennial catalog). Coming of age after the heyday of gender theory and in the wake of the debates about painting’s continued viability that have characterized the last decade, Bas is engaged in the task of assimilating and moving beyond received notions of “queer aesthetics.” One of the things that make his paintings compelling is the way in which vision sometimes seems to strain against the limits of proficiency—a dynamic of yearning that imbues the work with sincerity at the level of representation itself. If the rendering sometimes leaves something to be desired, it may be because desire is precisely the thing Bas is trying to negotiate.

Elizabeth Schambelan