Sometimes the success of an artist’s previous work casts such a positive glow on the new it obscures judgment. Certainly this became an issue for me while viewing the latest Hernan Bas exhibition at Lehmann Maupin. Impressed by the artist’s earlier uneasy representation of young homosexual boys it took a while to understand the effect of their absence. Unfortunately, when the halo of past achievement eventually gave way I found the new abstracted landscapes and diminutive figures significantly less accomplished.
Surely not arranged this way on purpose, the further the viewer ventures into the gallery the better the work hanging on the walls. Situated near the front of the building, Colored Plastic Complex of Noise, depicts a modernist architectural structure with figures situated in a green thicket of Impressionism. It is undoubtedly the weakest work in the exhibition. Picture a Jules de Balincourt cityscape circa 2004 meeting Paul Cezanne in a garden of Bob Ross and you’ve got your painting. It’s unclear if the objective was to create a piece about cliché brushwork — certainly the show’s title, The Dance of the Machine Gun and Other Forms of Unpopular Expression, suggests as much — or to achieve virtuosity within that language. Either way, the artist failed to make a successful painting.
Other works better combine painterly styles. The Bagpiper in Exile (or The Sad Wind), carefully renders a man and his fallen pipes against a scraped Gerhard Richter-esque foreground. Bas mixes this with fragments of rendered landscapes evoking Claude Oscar Monet but achieves uneven results. Parts of the work are an unresolved mish mash of well known painting, while others beautifully combine the best moments of the masters he quotes. Intense feelings of loneliness and failure surround the figure, but ultimately over-determined paint handling sublimates the emotional charge of the narrative.
In another work, an abstract expressionist landscape with hints of neo-cubism finds greater cohesiveness. Titled Mystery Bouf (or the Kingdom After the Flood) the painting perfectly melds the hard edge techniques of Julie Mehretu into its apocalyptic scene. The piece also retains some of the erotic tone captured in his previous work. Similarly, the awkward handling seems more forgivable, if for no other reason than the pubescent subjects suffer from corresponding problems.
The only fully resolved work absent of homoerotic content hangs at the back of the gallery. The Variety Theatre, a small dark painting mimicking the sticky feel of a divey music venue, marks the strongest piece in the show, as well as the most understated. In this case, the interior itself represents a cliché, but in contrast to other work it’s not supposed to amount to anything else. In fact, its economy of expression provides a welcome reprieve from the dizzying references marking the larger paintings. The only piece in the exhibition I immediately recognized as uniquely distinct from Bas’ previous endeavors, this small jewel most certainly casts its own halo of success.