Conceptual Artist #1 exclusively mixes his paints with water from Niagara Falls. Another carries around food colouring for ephemeral land-based interventions on puddles. Conceptual Artist #3 is a perpetual chewer of gum, and his disgusting, multicoloured archive ‘Bubblegum Alley’ propels him to the heights of critical acclaim – that is, until he cracks his jaw, as the accompanying text tells us. Still, there’s hope. ‘If his chewing days were over, his career as an influencer was just beginning.’
Gilded Dead Houseplants
Hernan Bas is a writer’s painter. His 2010 exhibition The Hallucinations of Poets shared DNA with some of the world’s oldest stories: a boy casts his torch through trees (read: ventures off into the unknown) while another young man encounters a luminous dandelion seed about to do something beanstalkish over a lone house in the woods. At the end of last year, Choose Your Own Adventure saw more lanky, androgynous boys populating more mysterious settings, from boats to bucket baths with blue flamingos. Now, The Conceptualists at Victoria Miro, London introduces us to a new cast of characters and the exhibition comes complete with a new, limited-edition publication, a collaboration with Lina Yablonsky, which sees the pair fleshing out the stories of these obsessive artists beyond the frame.
"a writer’s painter"
"Bas’ conceptualists probe the question of what is exchanged between artist and viewer"
In 2016’s Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art — a BBC documentary made before Banksy’s self-shredding artwork or Grimes trying to sell a part of her soul — Dr James Fox unboxes a Martin Creed limited-edition, a rolled-up ball of paper. For Fox, it’s representative of ‘why so many people struggle with conceptual art: it doesn’t seem to require much skill, it’s not particularly beautiful and, ultimately, it feels like a bit of a rip off.’ Between industriousness and ease, beauty and inventiveness, Bas’ conceptualists also probe the question of what is exchanged between artist and viewer.
In the 1960s, conceptual art challenged fusty, elitist art schools and disrupted the ruling modernist aesthetic. You only have to watch the Cambridge-educated Dr Fox get visibly flustered by a dishevelled-looking Martin Creed before the latter’s gig at The Moth Club with its kitschy gold shimmer curtain for proof of how class, education and conceptualism make for one of the more uncomfortable British cocktails, to this day (Fox looks like he’s just been mailed one of Conceptual Artist #13’s dead flies.) Yet, with the likes of Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Tracey Emin being some of the biggest names in art, I suspect many now view conceptual art as the establishment.
"that fleeting moment when questions haven't been answered and anticipation is at its highest"
Taking Marcel Duchamp’s urinal-fountain of 1917 as the movement’s maiden voyage, it’s remarkable that we’re still so easily trolled by similar gestures over a hundred years later. Then again, the art market hasn’t evolved much in that time either; ‘the art world is still founded on Romantic principles’, as the anthropologist David Graeber puts it, and we are presented with a double-bind. On the one hand, we are allured by ‘a kind of democratic notion of genius as an essential aspect of any human being, even if it can only be realized in some collective way’ – and at the same time, because the art market must uphold exclusivity to prevent itself from collapsing, it tells us ‘that those things that really matter are always the product of some individual heroic genius.’ We can all shit but only Manzoni’s is worth its weight in gold.
The Conceptualists are Bas’ most Romantic portraits to date. Each artist is a powder keg of passion dandying about in his spacious studio. As mentioned, Conceptual Artist #13 spends his nights posting dead flies to everyone in his neighbourhood. Lit from above by the ultraviolet light of fly zappers which cast everything in blue and purple – recalling Hirst’s formaldehyde and rotting flesh – his cheekbones could cut glass and his haircut is on point, as he looks heavenwards, past the rotting fruit in hanging baskets, somewhere, well, deeper. Life is short, and Bas encourages us to look deeper, too. For subjects as Marmite-y as conceptual artists, Bas’ are impossible to love or to loathe. Rather, these paintings delight in the all too human complexity in between.
Could you talk about the role of narrative in your work?
I've always seen the works as functioning as a play would, you're witnessing the minute just before intermission. It's that fleeting moment when questions haven't been answered and anticipation is at its highest.
"The fact that 'conceptual art' is the quickest route for a punchline about art wasn't lost on me"
I wonder if you think of this cast of characters as coming from one ‘scene’ or movement, or from different locales and time periods?
I like to attempt to keep the characters and scenes in an ambiguous space in terms of time periods. That said, one of the few markers you can spot is my repeated use of common Converse sneakers, I like that they are easily recognisable but also haven't changed much since they're debut so the character could be today or the 70's, 50's etc.
Has conceptual art become superfluous? Are all conceptual artists merely gilding the leaves of dying houseplants à la Conceptual Artist #5? Or is this as worthwhile a pursuit as any for you (art for art's sake)?
I'm a huge admirer of conceptual pursuits, most of the artists I was most drawn to early on came from that space, Felix Gonzales Torres, Joseph Beuys, etc.,. The fact that 'conceptual art' is the quickest route for a punchline about art wasn't lost on me in the process of making this series but I don't see it as mocking or parody, despite the humour some of them solicit. I think it has just become harder to make sincere conceptual gestures, but when it works it REALLY works, and vice versa.
"every work has to have an entire world behind it"
The Conceptualists seem to call into question the hows and whys of making art. I wonder if making them has brought to light any new realisations about your own practice?
It has made me realise how hard I make the work for myself. I can't make a painting about nothing, by that I mean every work has to have an entire world behind it. In this series I'm literally inventing a whole life and career for someone, that's a lot more work for my brain then simply a casual portrait.
Do you think of these people as millennials? (Or am I projecting?)
Ha! I think projecting is the whole point, so if that's what you see it's not wrong.
By Sammi Gale