The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga proudly presents A Brief Intermission by the American artist Hernan Bas, opening 21 September. The artist’s first show at a museum in Spain, it features thirty-six paintings, some of them created specifically for the occasion. His work revolves around the romantic and melancholic images of the classical world, with references to Oscar Wilde, Joris-Karl Huysmans and other writers of the Aesthetic and Decadent literary movements. Nature scenes with contemplative and solitary young males in a universe without women are a recurring motif in his painting. In the worlds imagined by Bas, good and evil are not simply counterpoints: they are identical.

“I am drawn to stories and tales but I hope my interest in them translates further, as images that go beyond pure representation of things that I find cool”, explains the artist Hernan Bas. “I love the written word but I am at a constant battle trying to make images that can stand alone and compete or, better, surpass the written word. I like when the work becomes an image. That moment when everything I read and thought about to get to this finished painting just drops away, and it gets its own life, its own space for interpretation. Once I’ve let it leave the studio I don’t feel like it’s mine whatsoever anymore”.

As the CAC Málaga director Fernando Francés points out, “Bas leaves very little to chance. His compositions emerge from obsessive investigation and an idiosyncratic material observation. Over the last decade, the artist has also consistently extended his experiments to include abstraction, as amply manifested in his show at the CAC Málaga, A Brief Intermission. Although he has never completely abandoned the figurative and landscape traditions that underpin his work, Bas has developed a profoundly experimental pictorial and gestural practice, borrowing elements from Symbolist poetry. He also conveys the sense of a constant sentimental contest between the calm and the storm, and the sensation of balance about to be lost.”

Hernan Bas (Miami, 1978) is descended from a family of Cuban immigrants and divided his childhood between the city of Miami and Ocala, in North Florida, where he spent his free time getting lost in the forest with his siblings and having little adventures. He was particularly interested in the books in the “Occult” section of the local library, and his early drawings simulated the illustrations in those books, or in certain cases represented his own ideas. In his works, those mysterious, phantasmagorical, esoteric landscapes are conveyed through emphatic strokes, with a clearly discernible horror vacui.

This show at the CAC Málaga is Hernan Bas’s first major exhibition in Spain. Entitled Hernan Bas: A Brief Intermission, it features around thirty-six recent works, dating from 2007 to the present day. Two of the works have been made specifically for the occasion and are therefore receiving their first public showing here.

One of the main influences in Hernan Bas’s world is his fondness for literature and poetry. The aura of romanticism, decadence and occasional dark existentialism that surrounds the delicate figures in his paintings recalls the sinister world of Edgar Allan Poe, the dandyism of Oscar Wilde, the explorations of Jean-Yves Rimbaud and the aesthetics of Joris-Karl Huysmans. Mephistopheles, at 17 (reading poetry) (2007) is the oldest work in the exhibition. A small-format piece, it shows a (somewhat languid) teenager who is really the devil’s evil spirit. The figure is seated, unperturbed and engrossed in his activity, seemingly oblivious to the sinister, threatening outside world around him. The trees and marshy skies are represented with Bas’s characteristic palette, with rapid brush strokes in rich purple and pink tones.

Hernan Bas’s works are created in a tense field that straddles abstraction and figuration. There is no clear tendency towards one form of representation or the other, but rather an interaction that sometimes inclines more in the direction of figuration and sometimes more in the direction of abstraction. This is the case of His voice would be the loudest in the land (2009), a painting in which the abstraction of the landscape evolves through the composition of colour. Rapid brush strokes, colours and superimposed forms dominate this diptych. Two pictorial elements, which at first glance may pass unnoticed, subvert the image entirely: a thoughtful-looking boy on one side and, opposite him, another boy leaning against a balustrade, each trying to communicate with the other.

Other paintings in the exhibition that are verging on abstraction, influenced by the Futurist Manifesto of F. T. Marinetti, the Italian poet and founder of Futurism, and by Absurdist Theatre are Ubu Roi (the war march) (2009) and Mystery Bouf (or, the kingdom after the flood) (2009). In Ubu Roi (the war march) (2009) the possibility of new ideas and ways of thinking that evolve from the absurd reveal Bas’s own thinking behind this body of work. The premise in this particular case is the Absurdist and Surrealist theatre of Alfred Jarry, author of Ubu Roi (1896), a play characterised by its brutal humour and complete absurdity or absence of all logic. Bas transfers King Ubu’s military campaign to a new setting: his fantastical landscapes. On the left, mounds merge with mountains in a combination of browns, pinks and greens; on the right, a cast of characters emerges from the dark jaws of a fairy-tale city and parades down the mountain. Brilliantly disguised, the characters from Ubu Roi dance on a platform which seems to mock the swirling waters below.

Mystery Bouf (or, the kingdom after the flood) (2009) is based on a socialist work written by Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1918/1921. Futurist elements and other references to modernist painting fill this work, while the geometric forms collide with the landscapes and Frank Lloyd Wright structures (the staircase) create linear counterparts to the Expressionist abstractions. A similar white, geometric landscape is found in The boy who fell for the fall (2009) where, as is often the case in Bas’s work, the protagonist assumes the role of spectator, surprised and dreamy-looking. This work was included in the Considering Henry show at galerie Perrotin in Paris in 2010. The Henry in question is the 19th-century poet and writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), one of the fathers of the American Transcendentalist movement. Hernan Bas is fascinated by this unconventional figure whose life embodied the quintessence of rebellion and the fusion with nature. That exhibition also featured The Signalmen (2009) and The dragon’s eyes (2009), which revolved exclusively around solitary figures that appear in the midst of a landscape, either reading or whispering to a tree. Bas ends his series on the theme of frozen landscapes a couple of years later with the work Thawing (2011).

Another distinctly abstract painting is Panning in the reeds (2009). The scene is dominated by the landscape, in which a tiny figure—a young male with his feet in the water—appears to dissolve into a series of abstract touches of the brush. In his hands he holds an object which simultaneously emits and receives rays. These draw our eyes over the rest of the work, tugging us towards a mythological atmosphere at the top left-hand side of the canvas as our gaze follows the chariot pulled by two white horses. Helios perhaps?

Water and figures that walk through lakes or rivers are recurring themes in Bas’s work, as we see in Breathing the air between two storms, A boy in a bog and The primordial soup theory (homosexual), all from 2010. In Breathing the air between two storms (2010), the abstract composition dominates the mood of the images through the use of colour and rapid gestural brush strokes; there appears to be no connection whatsoever between the protagonist and the painting. Hernan Bas’s works do not only represent images of fantasy atmospheres and dream worlds. They repeatedly express his attitude towards the technical potential of painting and to his personal interests and influences. For instance, this work clearly reveals the influence of the painter Peter Goig, and Bas’s close contact with him. Meanwhile, in The primordial soup theory (homosexual) (2010) a young male dressed in ordinary clothes appears to walk through water in the midst of a thick forest. Bas regards nature as an excess of greed, decadence and death. At the top of the canvas, the landscape seems to disintegrate, to die, adopting phantasmagorical forms that threaten the figure. The title references two things: the theory that attempts to explain the origin of life, and homosexuality.

These trees become more wavy-lined, like the stuff of dreams or dark, hazy nightmares, in The hallucinations of poets (painted forest) (2010) and A spoilt pit (or, that final creature) (2010). In the former painting, two young males appear in a somewhat fantastical, threatening landscape, in a charged, claustrophobic atmosphere. This sinister vision of nature has more in common with the ideas of the Dark Romantics (Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and Dickinson), an American literary sub-genre highly influenced by Transcendentalism. For these Dark Romantics, the natural world is a place of shadows, decadence, mystery, ghosts and death. On the right-hand side of A spoilt pit (or, that final creature) (2010), a young lad surrounded by trees stands on the edge of the abyss we see in the centre of the image. As in the previous work, the landscape is menacing.

Little by little, the human figure acquires greater prominence in Bas’s work, still appearing in the midst of a forest but significantly larger. In One of the rarest and most brilliant waders of the south (2011), a young androgynous figure in modern clothes immerses his body in a stream that runs through a thick forest. He appears distant, not completely at one with his setting even though he forms part of it. This tension is heightened by the use of repetitive shapes for the tree branches, whose spiky forms also seem to threaten the youth. A recurring device in Bas’s work is the comparison between birds and the human figure, ideas that he has borrowed from books; in this particular work, the boy sinks his feet in the puddle, like a wader. The same “aggressive” vegetation is also present in A mixture of shyness and boldness (2011).

Hernan Bas establishes a connection between esotericism and homosexuality, highlighting aspects like the mysterious, magical and supernatural, things for which there is no explanation. This is amply demonstrated in his works and in the titles he chooses for them, as we see with A Satanist on a Tuesday (or, the Key Master) (2012), where once again he paints water and a bridge, this time using a dark palette. The figure in the work is situated in the middle, reclining and almost obstructing the path with his leg. In his hand he holds a key over a stone; like the other stones around him, it is covered with occult symbols like Satan’s Cross, also known as the Leviathan Cross. In the background on the left is a menacing house with phantasmagorical lights on the top floor and a beam of light emanating from the chimney. The same theme also appears in the cemetery that Bas paints in There’s just no point in crying (2013). The artist portrays the loneliness of a grief-stricken boy standing beside a tomb, the pain of his face clearly visible as he gazes down at the grave. An eerie mist casts a supernatural aura over the scene. In Albino in a moonilght garden (2014), the young male of the title is painted in a way that suggests a fantastical animal, with elongated limbs; surrounded by flowers in the same colour as his complexion, he is bathed in silver light from the full moon, which together with the mist creates a phantasmagorical atmosphere.

Bas has continued to produce his signature portraits of young males but over time his palette has become lighter, as we see in The boy with the pearl earring (2013), whose title offers an obvious clue to Bas’s interest in art history. The boy inclines his head slightly to show the pearl in his ear, immediately recalling Johannes Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665-1667). Bas places the protagonist in a landscape with geometric architectural forms, surrounded by flowers that seem to dissolve into the painting; the inspiration is clearly Monet’s latter period because in 2005 Bas was an artist-in-residence at Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny. Another work with a similar protagonist is The rare orchid collector on expedition (2015), a bucolic, twilight setting in which a young man in a boat examines an orchid. In fact, it has grown so dark that the orchid becomes the unmistakable protagonist.

Bas often draws inspiration from synthesised images and, in certain cases, from references to pop culture as well. For example, in The 2014 Mr General Idea Pageant (2014), a handsome young male struts down a catwalk wearing a red suit made of architectural forms that recall ziggurats. The dramatic colour and extravagant sculptural quality of the clothes are reminiscent of the aesthetics of the Memphis Group, the short-lived but influential circle of designers and artists founded by Ettore Sottsass in Milan in the 1980s. The Memphis look—deeply referential, cheerful and unrestrained—impregnates the references to pop culture that marked Bas’s youth, such as Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Beetlejuice. Likewise, in The party is over (clamming up) (2016) two youths find themselves in a room dedicated to the exploration of the decorative arts in a single interior, an obvious tribute to the Memphis Group designs.

The artist draws on various references from the fields of art, poetry, religion, mythology, film and literature. In both The haunters of first nights (2016) and The imagined atelier of Bruno Hat (2016), Bas focuses his attention specifically on 1920s London, on the young, bohemian aristocrats that emerged after the First World War, characterised by their luxury, party-going lifestyle. For the artist, who has spent a long time examining the queer male themes found in modern history, these figures and scenarios embody the recent past. In The imagined atelier of Bruno Hat (2016), he depicts a young sculptor in his studio, surrounded by busts. This interior space is constructed around a curtain, stains of red clay on the idealised artist’s apron, and in the background the brush strokes of a still life; it is a clear nod to Cézanne, a picture within another picture. In The haunters of first nights (2016), four youths are at the theatre; they should be watching the play from their box, but instead they are either busy looking at each other or are lost in thought. The curtains in the background have a curious repetitive pattern.

Bas has always been interested in history and literature, and in deciphering the historical and mythological narratives in images. He also has an obvious taste for the iconography of popular culture, fashion, queer culture and mysticism, and in recent years he has increasingly focused on English themes. For example, in Bloomsbury revisited (the new perfume) (2017) and Bloomsbury revisited (red coat) (2017), he embarks on an expedition to the bohemian world of the Bloomsbury Group, whose members included writers, painters and philosophers like Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, during the first half of the 20th century. In Bloomsbury revisited (the new perfume) (2017), an arrogant-looking youth gazes back at the spectator. His reclining posture and sleepy eyes recall the images of the typical carefree dandy of the 1920s. Also included in this exhibition and related to the United Kingdom, but this time focusing on the world of university students, are the works Cambridge Nightclimber (View of Trinity) (2017) and Cambridge Nightclimbers (2017).

In Suicide Sunday (taking on water) (2017) Bas explores the rituals for earning privileges frequent among young students. A group of semi-naked novices float down the River Cam on a cardboard boat, part of the traditional “Suicide Sunday” held every year in June to celebrate the end of exams. The multiple figures in the painting, on the boat and in the water, all in different stages of shedding their clothes, recall The Raft of Medusa as well as Thomas Eakins’s flexible rowers. Sweat or tear (punting on the Cam) (2017) is another picture of university rowers but this time they are in the foreground.

Another major work in the exhibition is Monsieur (keys to the pantry) (2017), a type of front cover that Bas has painted with the headline “Monsieur”, a magazine from the 1920s. The scene is broken down into sections, like a comic, with a still life and two male figures sharing the same space but not together. The work includes details like a circle in the bottom left corner, where a floating hand unlocks a door with a key; keys also appear in other parts of the painting.

Unlike other members of his species, camouflage is not in his favor (2017) belongs to a series created for an exhibition in Japan. Bas regards as extravagant the poetics used to describe insects, and indeed the visual vocabulary used to describe dandies, the effeminate male figures that emerged in Europe in the late 19th century. Historically, these figures were ridiculed; they were described literally as insects and given the appearance of a species from a completely separate world. Surrounded by exotic flowers, this young male is portrayed like an animal specimen, in a delicate pose with limbs that appear to emerge from his body thanks to the lines drawn by Bas.

Lastly, the show includes the three works painted by Bas this year (2018), The gardener’s scarf, That odd summer of ‘84 (Satanic Panic) and Sorting out Andy. In The gardener’s scarf (2018) a youth sits on a bench in a garden of circular lines with a few recognisable figures, like a vast garden. The unusual note is provided by the scarf of the title: it is a snake, tightly wrapped around the youth’s neck but refraining from strangling him. That odd summer of ‘84 (Satanic Panic) (2018) portrays two boys in a natural setting, wearing newspaper hats. Bas has always been interested in the paranormal and this work contains a hidden meaning. The devil is really in the details, as we see when our eyes wander to the folded newspaper hats and we read the headlines splashed across the pages, like “Occult leader in bid to sell black magic to children”. Lastly, Sorting out Andy (2018) is the largest work that Bas has ever made. A male figure lies across a table, preoccupied or perhaps indulging in a daydream. The room contains numerous objects, such as a pair of red gloves casually strewn across a cardboard box and several carved wood masks, all real objects belonging to Andy Warhol. The inspiration for this picture was the inventory of Warhol’s vast estate that was drawn up before the auctions at Sotheby’s in 1988. Held over ten days and featuring more than 10,000 objects, the auctions attracted thousands of gawkers and the final prices achieved more than doubled the estimates before the sale. For Hernan Bas this is not the epic battle scene of an auctioneer triumphantly raising his hammer in a packed room; it is rather a portrait of the pageboy who carried the treaty that put an end to the war.

Hernan Bas (Miami, 1978) has held the following solo shows: Hernan Bas: The Paper Crown Prince and Other Works, Colby College Art Museum, Waterville, ME, United States (2018); Insects from Abroad, Galerie Perrotin, Tokyo, Japan (2018); Cambridge Living, Victoria Miro, Mayfair, London, United Kingdom (2017); Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland (2017); Florida Living, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA (2017); Tropical Depression, Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Miami, United States (2016); Fruits and Flowers, Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France (2015); Case Studies, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, China (2014); The Other Side, Kunstverein Hannover, Hannover, Germany (2012), et cetera. He has also shown his work at the following group exhibitions: Tracing Shadows, PLATEAU, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea (2015); Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Pensilvania, United States (2011); Nothing in the World But Youth, Turner Contemporary, Margate, United Kingdom (2011); Intimacy, Contemporary Art After Nine Eleven, Triennale di Milano, Milan, Italy (2007); and Think Warm, Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2006), among others. His work can also be found in the following collections: Brooklyn Museum, New York, United States; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, United States; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, United States; Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami, United States; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, United States; Saatchi Collection, London, United Kingdom; Samuso: Space for Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, United States, among others.