Lolitas -- so called for Nabokov’s famous novel featuring a nymphet who knows more about sex (with both female and male partners) than her pedophile seducer imagined possible in bourgeois America of the 1950s -- are all over the place in contemporary art. But the skinny long-legged flat-chested kid whose mix of awkwardness and grace Humbert Humbert found irresistible is more likely today to be a boy than a girl. A certain role reversal has taken place, as today’s Lolita looks ready to defend herself with a fierce glance, and a gun if necessary, while her Lolito counterpart seems utterly defenseless and from a bookish other world.
Hernan Bas (b. 1978) is a leader in the new generation of artists who specialize in Lolito images, and his works in paint and video raise interesting questions. Is the "fag limbo" that he depicts merely sensationalist, or is it about "a serious reframing of societal texts," as the critic Robert Hobbs offers in his catalogue essay for "Hernan Bas: Works from the Rubell Family Collection," Feb. 27-May 24, 2009, at the Brooklyn Museum? And, more broadly speaking, does the neo-Lolita/Lolito phenomenon signal a changing social reality?
Bas hails from Miami and has Cuban origins. Acting out a variety of single-frame narratives, the "boys" in his paintings often wear Harlequin tights, ruffled collars, velvet gilets, billowing white shirts and similar signifiers of another time and another place. Their accoutrements are also coded "not contemporary." The dreaming hero of The Swan Prince (2004) is carried on a shell-shaped Venetian gondola led by swans. The velvet-clad gaunt young man of The Burden (I Shall Leave No Memoirs) (2006) swoons in an antique armchair. When one of Bas’ creatures listens to music (The Prude Listening to Love Songs, 2006), the sound comes from a 1930s phonograph. Even the artist’s painting style connotes the past, suggesting prior artists ranging from Egon Schiele to early Picasso and Matisse, as in Untitled (The Green Line) from 2005.
Not all of Bas’ work uses the ingredients of another time and place as code for distancing, otherness and nostalgia. Nor does his art always simulate, as it does in The Great Barrier Wreath (2006), the look of gay decadence associated with Oscar Wilde and Arthur Rimbaud’s ghostly alcohol- and drug-induced supernatural visions. True, the young fellows who populate the bizarre watery landscape of The Great Barrier Wreath lack signs of masculinity, are far too slim, vulnerable and oddly dressed to play tackle in any sport.
As for the environment in which the young boys play games, it reeks of male dreaming, including an excess of long-necked birds, sinuous pinkish tumescent tree roots, vertical trees, mountain peaks and the like. But the room-size black-and-white (indeed more dark than light) video installations also on view at the Brooklyn Museum, which include sound and a certain amount of floor paraphernalia, are nostalgic without emanating the gayness of the painted works. Their nostalgia refers to temps perdu, the years of youth.
Indeed, with the exception of the odd collection of used objects that Bas desultorily throws on the floor à la Cady Noland, the near life-size videos depict everyday boys doing everyday things, flying kites, swimming, maneuvering a toy sailboat, canoeing and -- yes --cornering a friend into sexual action. These are typical boys’ experiences lived or imagined in early adolescent years, a time of deep and sometimes passionate friendships. The Loveliest Song (2003), a painting about a young boy confiding his thoughts to a soul mate while the two are lying on a plot of grass, speaks of the kind adolescent closeness -- male or female -- that can indeed produce physical desire even if the participants reject it or are unaware of the notion.
So is the work merely intended for the gay viewer’s delectation? Bas is one of those recent art school graduates who has certainly homed in on a subject capable of ensnaring immediate attention, and he obviously has succeeded with the Rubell family who, ten years ago, began to buy his work wholesale, no doubt inspiring collectors and dealers in Miami, London and elsewhere. On a primary level, the works are sensationalist and coincide with what the public sees as a gay sensibility. But as Robert Hobbs points out, the paintings speak also of unstable urgings and sexuality. Hobbs quotes Judith Butler, who writes, "in the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a [drag] performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity. . . ."
At no time does the law of heterosexual incoherence apply more broadly than in the interval between childhood and adulthood that Bas deals with imaginatively and with unusual metaphors, under the heading of "fag limbo." "Fag limbo," the artist explains, "is a space where everyone is worthy of suspicion. Most heterosexual boys I know exemplify this new class of boys; it is a clique that flirts with the sort of ‘model’ behavior typical of what is considered to be a bit sissy." Bas brings unusual empathy to the fag limbo stage, its looks, its ambiguities and its secrets, and his art describes the feelings of an age group that is neither child nor adult, whose body type has something of both a boy and a girl, and whose sexuality endangers normative thinking, if not normative behavior.
In this interpretation, the persecuted adolescent who dresses differently and is the butt of ridicule on the high school playing field is given renewed dignity. The nouveau sissy, as Bas call him, is "a new brand of boy that has the space to move at its own volition, back and forth and in and out of fag limbo." I guess that’s what is called the sexual liberation of the adolescent male.
Bas is hardly alone in focusing on adolescents and their ambiguous desires. From Schuebbe Projects gallery in Düsseldorf, I received an exhibition announcement card with the reproduction of a painting showing a young creature lying pensively in bed, whom I took to be a girl until I checked on the web for other paintings by the same artist, Christian Schoeler. The title of his show, "Studies for a Boy Book," was a dead giveaway.
Last fall, at the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York, a show entitled "ambiguous desires" mined similar territory with photographic prints of attractive kids. The photographer, a Russian named Evgeny Mokhorev, specializes in images of homeless children in St. Petersburg. Boys and girls pose for him half naked. One of them, a boy (?), is seen standing languidly against a wall, his long blond hair flowing down to his shoulders, his hairless torso in full view, as if ready to be propositioned by a gay Humbert Humbert as by a protective motherly female.
Depictions of youth would thus appear to be of transnational interest these days, and they are hardly without recent precedent especially in photography (Robert Maplethorpe, Larry Clark). But if the depiction of skinny adolescents is not new, what is new is their environment. The Lolitos of Mokhorev and Bas survive in a world without adults. Homeless in Mokhorev, abandoned in a limbo between heaven and earth in Bas’ The Great Barrier Wreath and On the Jagged Shores, the boys’ sexual liberation that Bas celebrates will be probably be short lived, and that may be why there is darkness and morbidity in fag limbo.
Michèle C. Cone is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).