When the Detroit-based artist Hernan Bas arrived at Jesus College, Cambridge, for a period of research in 2016, he didn’t know what ‘fresher’ meant. The term, familiar to anyone who’s been to a British university, is used to describe first-year undergraduates and hints at much of the bravado of student life. At Cambridge, the word has more legendary connotations, calling to mind the university’s dining clubs, ancient initiation rites and the decadence of undergraduate parties, all played out in the timeless splendour of the colleges and along the sweep of the River Cam.
At Victoria Miro’s Mayfair space, nine new figurative paintings by Bas are inspired by the mythos of varsity life. Featuring young men punting on the river or scaling the city’s historic architecture, these works draw on the lore of Cambridge to create contemporary coming-of-age narratives. The paintings have a dreamlike quality, as though time has been suspended; their subjects are on the cusp of sexual maturity, at once recognizable and anonymous, intimate and aloof.
Suicide Sunday (Taking on Water) (all works 2017), the largest of the works on display, shows a group of young men aboard a sinking cardboard raft – part of a notoriously drunken river race to celebrate the end of summer exams. It’s a bucolic scene and Bas’s palette is warm. In his depiction of multiple figures, both in and out of the water, all in various stages of undress, he gestures towards Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19). Despite the proximity of their slim bodies, the figures are disconnected; defeat registers in each averted gaze. Bas has focused on male adolescence throughout his career. In these works, the paleness of the boys’ limbs, streaked with tan lines, and their languid movements capture the fragility of emergent masculinities. The theme is developed in a small collection of transfer drawings that accompany the paintings in which students are shown at rest in their rooms, drinking or roughly embracing during sport.
Bas’s narratives fluctuate between past and present. His ‘Night Climbers’ series refers to the early-20th-century fraternity that gained a cult following for their night-time ascents of Cambridge buildings. In 1937, a pseudonymous book of the group’s exploits was published by Chatto & Windus. Bas draws on the group’s history and their culture of secrecy, yet updates his paintings with contemporary protagonists: urban, robust and self-assured. In Cambridge Nightclimbers (2017), two men, one in a green hoodie with a smudge of red hair, the other in a t-shirt, scale a gothic spire in an image of homosocial intimacy. In Cambridge Nightclimber (View of Trinity) (2017), a solitary climber hangs almost idly off a facade, the muscles in his arm taut. In both works, the city is presented in silhouette against the muddy night sky, its zig-zagging rooftops rendered in layers of flat colour, its textures conveyed with stencils and wood block prints.
Most charismatic are Bas’s paintings of young men punting on the river after dark. These figures, with their surly, unreadable expressions, are unlike the pale boys on the raft. Not recognizably students – they lack the visual class signifiers of the handkerchief and rowing unisuit – they are perhaps local lads who work for the punting companies and fish on the river after the students and tourists have left. Bas here reveals his interest in queer British art history: they bring to mind Henry Scott Tuke’s depictions of local boys on Cornish beaches. In these paintings, Bas creates subtle romantic drama; one man, driving the punt, glances unseen at his companion. Bas conveys his queer sensibility in such moods of uncertainty, nonetheless laced with possibility.
Main image: Hernan Bas, Suicide Sunday (taking on water), 2017, acrylic on linen, 1.5 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro, London