Hernan Bas - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Hernan Bas (born 1978) is a contemporary American painter living and working in Miami. His paintings feature complex compositions that are rich in detail and texture, frequently layering images and patterns that create a sense of depth and movement within the canvas. This is augmented by a fluid, gestural brushwork with which his characters are rendered - often in a loose, expressive style that emphasises their emotional states.


    The present lot, painted in 2011, is a resonant example of this singular practice. Orphaned in a desolate and barren landscape, a lone figure has his back turned, his face obscured in forbidden knowledge. The world around him has seemed to have been left to rot, with fauna fanning itself out and trees fumbling new roots over dilapidated settlements. An annihilating sky lies heavy over this chaos, where Bas’ brushwork goes from loose to abstracted. The observation of nature (despite being harrowing) is one of precision, an almost preternatural intuition that borders into the supernatural, recalling the attuned forms of David Hockney.



    David Hockney, No. 599, 2020
    iPad Drawing
    Artwork: © David Hockney

    Sensual Danger


    Growing up in a small backwater town in upstate Florida, a place that the artist described as living in an episode of the X-Files, Bas enjoyed a unique childhood that was littered with paranormal sightings and other bizarre encounters with the unearthly. These formative years fomented a penchant for morbidity, desolation, isolation and eccentric humour.


    The psychotropic worlds that Bas conjures are ones where darkness and pleasure are intimately intertwined. In his work, sexuality is often depicted in a highly charged, ambiguous manner where men and boys of various ages engage in acts and rituals of courtship, love and death - the mannered ballads of heightened emotion. This androgynous dandy aesthetic, tempered with a macabre sensibility, is rarely explicit; rather, it is suggested through small details, such as a hint of a lace collar or a languid, sensual pose.


    These visions are both alluring and ominous, often featuring dark, lush landscapes filled with tangled vegetation and shadowy corners. His waify figures are depicted in soft, almost dreamlike tones, and occupy the liminal boundaries of the human condition, what Bas calls the ‘fag limbo’ i.


    The Hillsides Must Not Know It takes its title from the poem by enigmatic 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson, I Haven’t Told My Garden Yet. Both works teem with essential harmony; both explore themes of secrecy and the hidden nature of the self.


    I haven’t told my garden yet—
    Lest that should conquer me.
    I haven’t quite the strength now
    To break it to the Bee—

    I will not name it in the street
    For shops would stare at me—
    That one so shy—so ignorant
    Should have the face to die.

    The hillsides must not know it—
    Where I have rambled so—
    Nor tell the loving forests
    The day that I shall go—

    Nor lisp it at the table—
    Nor heedless by the way
    Hint that within the Riddle
    One will walk today ­
    — Emily Dickinson, I Haven’t Told My Garden Yet, 1898


    By enveloping his figure in a world of oppressive incongruity, Bas speaks to the confines of his own sexuality. This subversive symbolism of his queerness is enshrined in his work, as he describes: 'The very terms: suspicion, mystery, clues, secrets, etc., are closely tied to any gay youth's experience. It describes the need to cover it up (one's sexuality). To keep it cloaked to solve these mysteries, to express the charm of ambiguous sexuality' ii. This intimate secrecy is paralleled in Dickinson’s powerful lines of apprehension, which suggest that the true nature of the self is something that cannot be easily expressed or understood, and that there is a sense of danger and vulnerability in revealing one's true desires and passions.



    The Southern Gothic


    Bas’ work is often informed by literature, though in particular, that of the great Romantic, Edgar Allen Poe. Forging a dialogue through generations of America’s creative output, both artists find kinship in their preoccupation with penetrating and uncovering the hidden facets of the human psyche. In Poe’s stories, characters often struggle with their inner demons or encounter supernatural beings that represent their deepest fears and desires. Similarly, Bas’ paintings often feature human figures in various states of emotional turmoil, hinting at the complex, multifaceted nature of human psychology. As such, Bas lifts from Allen Poe’s fiefdom of the Southern Gothic – a genre known for its exploration of the macabre, grotesque, and taboo – to infuses it with a distinctly queer sensibility in the production of hauntingly erotic works.


    This dialogue is brilliantly played out in the present lot. Like in The Hillsides Must Not Know It, Allen Poe’s famed short story The Fall of the House of Usher is haunting, thought-provoking, and demonstrates the power of art to evoke senses of unease and disquietude. Decay and isolation are similarly focal, where the deterioration of a familial house reflects the psychological corrosion of its inhabitants.


    “I looked upon the scene before me - upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain - upon the bleak walls - upon the vacant eye-like windows - upon a few rank sedges - and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees - with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into everyday life - the hideous dropping off of the veil.”
    Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839


    Though perhaps with the medium of painting, Bas unleashes the full potential of Southern Gothic psychodrama. Po’s tale is a narrative that unfolds over time, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Bas’ painting, on the other hand, is a static image that invites the viewer to linger and explore. The lack of a clear narrative allows for multiple interpretations, and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about the meaning behind the image. The artist explains as much: 'I do like the idea that everything is contained—the entire narrative, within the frame of the canvas; but paintings that I consider to be successful are always on the verge of falling apart. To me, that’s the fun of it—the eminent collapse, and also the challenge.' iii. Permanence is perilous however, as with every second spent investigating the work’s panoplies, we run the risk of forever being swallowed into its endless intricacies.


    “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart - an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it - I paused to think - what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?”
    — Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839 

    Collector’s Digest 


    • Bas has held numerous successful solo exhibitions in recent years. This includes at the Rubell Museum in Miami; Creature Comforts at Perrotin in Paris (17 October 2020 – 30 January 2021); Venetian Blind at Victoria Miro in Venice (8 February – 14 March 2020); and TIME LIFE at Lehmann Maupin in New York (7 November 2019 – 4 January 2020).

    • 2021 marked Bas’ debut in China when his retrospective, Choose Your Adventure, was held at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai

    • His works are held in numerous prestigious public collections around the world, including: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Saatchi Collection, London; Samuso: Space for Contemporary Art, Seoul; Rubell Family Collection, Miami; and the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.


    i Hernan Bas, quoted in artist biography on the Galerie Perrotin website, online

    ii Hernan Bas, quoted in: Exh. Cat., Miami, Museum of Contemporary Art, Hernan Bas: It’s Supernatural, 2002

    iii Hernan Bas, quoted in Sarah Margolis-Pineo, ‘Against Nature: An Interview with Hernan Bas’, Art21, 27 December 2011, online

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
      Acquired from the above by the current owner in 2015

    • Exhibited

      Zurich, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Hernan Bas, Perennial Affairs, 11 June - 30 July 2011
      Kunstverein Hannover, Hernan Bas: The Other Side, 18 February - 29 April 2012

Ο ◆ ✱9

The hillsides must not know it

signed with the artist's initials, titled and dated '"The hillsides must not know it" HB 2011' on the reverse
acrylic airbrush and block print on linen
183.2 x 213.5 cm. (72 1/8 x 84 in.)
Executed in 2011.

Full Cataloguing

HK$6,500,000 - 8,500,000 

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Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023