INSIDE LEHMANN MAUPIN's Hong Kong gallery, Miami-born Cuban artist Hernan Bas is introducing me to a cast of quirky characters. There's Kyle, who's nursing a dead flamingo, mermaid-obsessed Baxter, who has gills tattooed onto his neck, and Anton, the feral child, crouching like a toad. Each of them is a protagonist in the series of lush paintings surrounding us titled Case Studies.
Those familiar with Bas know his penchant for homoerotic themes, Hardy Boys novels and all things supernatural. In a similar vein to his previous works, this new series touches on ideas of homosexuality and coming of age. In typical Bas fashion, the works are infused with a strange sense of child-like wonder. “For me, curiosity is a really important aspect of making work,” says the round-faced artist with the boyish smile. “The smallest thing can set off a series.”
Now 36, Bas's career has of late soared. In the span of just a couple of years, he went from being a part-time handler installing paintings to an internationally renowned painter who's a regular on the art-fair circuit, which is where we catch up with him during Art Basel in Hong Kong.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW WORKS.
My work in the past has been based on literature and history, but this series started randomly on a plane. I used to write a lot when I was a kid, fiction mostly, and I'd sort of abandoned that for a long time. But I just started writing a story about a character [on a flight] and then I became obsessed with writing these profiles of different boys, basically creating my own Hernans. I decided to call them Case Studies as they're psychological profiles being written by someone who's analysing the characters. Most of them have issues that would require them to see a psychologist. All of the stories end with the same line: “His current boyfriend is a psychoanalyst from New Jersey,” so there's a hint that they all have deep-rooted problems.
WHERE DO YOU GET THE IDEAS FOR THESE CHARACTERS?
A lot of the stories are not meant to be autobiographical, but, like all writers, I cull from my life sometimes. All the stories have a little bit of me in them. Like when I was nine years old I would read people's palms and pretend to be psychic. So one character, Harvey, ran away from home when he was young and moved to southern Georgia. He lived with a bunch of runaway kids and he developed psychic abilities. It got to a point where every time he touched an object he would get psychic feelings from it, so when he was not reading clients' palms he needed to wear gloves so he wouldn't be hit with psychic energy all the time. So he became a glove collector. He has different gloves for different situations – so if he's at a cemetery he needs to wear really thick gloves because of the extra powerful senses there.
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A CHILD? DID YOU ALWAYS HAVE A STRANGE IMAGINATION?
I think so. I grew up in a strange environment in northern Florida surrounded by ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoots. We lived in the middle of the woods with clay roads. It was a unique upbringing. I didn't know I was strange until I moved to Miami when I was six or seven and realised other kids don't see that stuff every day. My older brother and sister are very into ghosts till this day. My sister is a Bigfoot hunter in Oregon and my brother until just recently was living in New Orleans and is a practising demonologist, whatever that means.
ARE YOU IN TOUCH WITH YOUR CUBAN ROOTS?
Not so much. I can't go to Cuba until Castro is dead – that's my parents' rule, not mine – but I want to go at some point. I just went on ancestry.com and sent them a DNA kit [to find out more about my heritage]. I have no idea of my background beyond my parents. I've heard everything, including Chinese, is in there. I guess I'll find out soon.
YOUR WORK IS FILLED WITH LITERARY REFERENCES. WHAT ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW?
I'm in a weird place with reading. I was reading a lot of Jean Cocteau's stuff. I just finished Les Enfants Terribles two days ago. People have always told me: “You need to read the book; it's so much like your work.” I was like, “Is that what people think of my work? Like, crazy teenagers with emotional problems?” It was actually perfect for this show. After that I just started reading Truman Capote short stories this week.
YOU ONCE DESCRIBED YOUR EARLY WORK AS EXPLORING "FAG LIMBO" HAVE YOU RETURNED TO THAT IDEA IN THIS SHOW?
The idea of fag limbo comes up within the stories [in the show]. I'll describe a lot of characters as having girlfriends within the storyline and you don't realise that they become gay until the last line. It's that limbo moment where these characters are figuring out that, “Maybe all these issues I have are because I'm closeted.” I think that idea pops up in this series maybe more so than in the last couple of years. I've come full circle a little bit.
IS SOME OF THIS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL? IS THAT HARD FOR YOU TO ADDRESS?
Yes, but I'm easy breezy. I don't mind telling anyone about anything. What do I have to lose?
THE AMERICAN COLLECTORS DON AND MERA RUBELL WERE PIVOTAL IN LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER. HOW DID YOU FIRST MEET?
I worked for the Rubells when I was 19 or 20. I did everything from picking up the trash to archiving and installing. Actually, the Rubells didn't collect my work until after I stopped working for them. They knew I was an artist but you don't want to go to your boss and say, “Look at my work.” But they became my supporters later. I was doing a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in their project space, and that's when they said, “OK, we get it now.” And they came to my studio and bought everything I had. For me, that's the moment when I became a real artist.
YOUR RESIDENCY AT THE ESTATE OF CLAUDE MONET IN FRANCE WAS ANOTHER TURNING POINT FOR YOU. TELL US ABOUT IT.
It was very bizarre. My apartment was part of the complex where he lived. It was the first time I'd lived in a country outside the US for an extended period, and I was in the shadow of Monet. We were given keys to his garden and could go at any time of night. We would steal boats and row out to the water lilies. Monet was a brilliant painter. It took me being there and seeing what he was inspired by to say: “He took this and turned it into that.” It was kind of shocking and really impressive. Also, going to the Louvre constantly and seeing the real history of painting, because in the US the history of painting is Pollock and Warhol. It doesn't have the same weight. It was a big moment for me. It still hits me now.
WHAT'S BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
That's a good question. I don't think anyone has ever asked me that. I feel like I'm spoiled because I don't know I've had any. I think, for me, it's getting over my own work. I know it sounds weird, but I think it's yet to come. There's going to be a moment where I reach a certain age when painting young boys is going to become weird [laughs]. But the characters have matured; I think they're older than they used to be. I'm not painting boy scouts any more. So I don't think it's happened yet, but it's coming close.