Exclusive: Miami Native Hernan Bas Brings Decadence to Brooklyn Museum

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Hernan Bas recently bought a house in Detroit. During an interview at the opening of his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum last night, the Miami native wouldn’t divulge much more than that. But, when asked about the trademark decadence of his work in relation to the imploding economy, Bas referenced a giant plastic panther that he keeps on his Detroit lawn. He smiled at the interviewer and asked “how fucking decadent is that?”

Throughout the exhibit, decadence emerges on a variety of levels. The work is lush, ornate and filled with allusions to everything from Moby Dick to Mephistopheles. But it also has an endearing magpie quality that makes it accessible to an audience without advanced degrees in 19th century lit. His self-described “pop understanding of obscure references” draws inspiration from sources including the occult, pop literature, random Victoriana, historical painting, gay culture and 19th century dandyism.

In Ocean’s Symphony: Dirge for the Fiji Mermaid, the artist creates a shrine to the mummified remains of the Fiji Mermaid, a common sideshow attraction during the 19th century. Accompanying the gloriously busy installation, Bas provides a statement about the mermaid. “Now,” he writes, “at the turn of the 21st century, these ugly little icons are simply soiled doves, relics of a time when people were more willing to believe.” This willingness to believe is at the core of his work. The show creates a Never Never Land that inspires its viewers to imagine something bigger, stranger and infinitely more fantastic than the banalities of our everyday lives.

Flavorwire was lucky to catch up with Bas a few weeks ago to discuss his work, his inspiration and how, in another life, he might have become a marine biologist.

Flavorwire: Are there any major misconceptions about your work?

Hernan Bas: I don’t know if there are that many of them. I mean, in my later work, I’ve focused less on gay symbolism. It’s not something I’m concerned about, but some people only want to look at things like they did when you were twenty.

FW: As a Miami based artist, how do you feel about Art Basel?

HB: I don’t know if I would have had the same exposure if it wasn’t for Art Basel. I think it’s had an insane impact on the town in a way that’s not completely positive. It’s home and I love it, but its weird to have a gallery pop up for a week or a month. I guess that’s the nature of art fairs. But, its definitely expanded the Miami art scene. I’m always amazed to see artists coming to Miami to work.

FW: How does the Miami art scene differ from New York’s?

HB: It’s hard for me to answer. Because of the craziness of the New York art scene, I’ve ducked out. I follow it, but I don’t live in it. It’s nice that in Miami, they aren’t as competitive. It’s much more calm. When I’m in New York, it’s hard to focus. For me, its been nice to get away and not be clouded by the stardom aspect. It’s fun to see sometimes, but I don’t want to live it.

FW: Your work often focuses on decadence and dandyism, do you see this changing as the economy continues to tank?

HB: It’s funny because the piece I’m currently working on for the armory show is of Apollo, the sun god, trawling for gold. It’s kind of ironic that that’s my contribution to the Armory Show this year.

FW: Who are our favorite contemporary artists?

HB: I usually lean towards people who have been dead a long, long time. But, I really like Cecily Brown’s work. And, these two are friends of mine so I have a bias, but I really like the work of Paul P and Sue de Beer. Paul P does a lot of really interesting, classically inspired work. He’s represented by Daniel Reich Gallery — my old gallery in New York.

FW: If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

HB: I think the only other thing I could do successfully is write about art. Maybe marine biology, but only because I’m from Florida where you can go snorkeling and be like “ooh, nature.” I probably would teach too. There’s this idea that those who can’t do, teach. But, I don’t believe that. I wish I could teach. I don’t have my MFA so I can’t, but I’d like to.