The Life of the Performer Behind the Scenes: Guest Post by Natalie Bohin

The Life of the Performer Behind the Scenes:
Hernan Bas’s They Can Bring the Curtain Down
as a Metaphor for the Performance of Sexuality

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

Hernan Bas, an artist from Miami that currently resides in Detroit, describes his work and interest in male adolescence as descended from his own journey in discovering his sexuality: “The whole idea of fag limbo to me begins with a character or an identity that doesn’t quite fit the clichés that one would expect for a young homosexual character. I wasn’t necessarily the young, flamboyant gay—I didn’t fit that cliché, but I didn’t fit the male, straight-boy cliché either” (i). His piece They Can Bring the Curtain Down combines his interest in male sexuality with performance art during the Dada movement, specifically with the Ballets Russes. The eight images in a paper folio explore a young man’s experience behind the curtain and the anxieties that rise from leading a life onstage. When pairing these images with Michael Messner’s “Becoming 100% Straight,” one can see how these portraits of a young performer also serve “as metaphors for sexual self-discovery” (ii). Hernan Bas not only investigates the worries inherent to performance on a physical stage but also the societal pressure of performing homosexuality when living in a heterosexual and patriarchal world.

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

Michael A. Messner’s “Becoming 100% Straight” utilizes the idea of performance to describe how “heterosexuality is a constructed identity” (iii). These ideas of gender and sexuality performance are reminiscent of Sandra Lee Bartky’s “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” In this chapter from her book Foucault and Feminism, Bartky applies Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon to explain how women discipline their bodies in our society in various ways such as fashion, dieting, and posture: “[T]he new discipline invades the body and seeks to regulate its very forces and operations, the economy and efficiency of its movements” (iv).

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

The Panopticon refers to a social theory developed by Michel Foucault where he suggested in his book Discipline and Punish that there is an anonymous force by which society uses to discipline itself. He developed this theory from Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison. From the design aspects of the building, the inhabitants would be unable to distinguish whether or not they were being surveyed. Consequently, occupants would always discipline themselves without the need of a watchman at all times. What Bartky references regarding the effects of the patriarchy and the Panopticon on women are further explored in Messner’s “Becoming 100% Straight.” He uses his own experiences, “memory work,” and those from four additional men to conduct a sociological experiment and “‘study up’ on corporate elites in sport, on whiteness, on masculinity, . . . on heterosexuality” (iii). From this experiment, Messner determines that he and the other men who participated were performing heterosexuality as young men rather than being heterosexual: “[A]s young male athletes, heterosexuality and masculinity were not something we ‘were,’ but something we were doing” (iii). For Messner, heterosexuality is not automatically tied to sexual deeds.

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

One of the example stories from Messner’s paper seems particularly similar to the message conveyed in Bas’s They Can Bring the Curtain Down. Tom Waddell, originally a closeted gay man, describes his interest in dance and why he chose athletics over the art form: “[S]omething became obvious to me right away–that male ballet dancers were effeminate. . . . I was totally closeted and very concerned about being male. . . . I wanted to be viewed as male, otherwise I would be a dancer today. I wanted the male macho image of an athlete” (iii). Despite ballet’s history as an entirely male art form, during the twentieth century and beyond, ballet became a feminine, dainty art primarily practiced by women. Bas integrates the history of ballet in They Can Bring the Curtain Down to highlight the femininity of his male character. The young man is especially gangly, thin, and positions himself awkwardly often in constricted positions. He is pictured in the corner of a room or at the side of the stage. The man is never shown actually dancing, on stage, or as a centered portrait. Hernan Bas explains his decision to portray his character in this manner: “These images in particular are joined by the motif of the curtain, the life of the performer behind the scenes, . . . [t]hese are lives of the understudies, the background performers rarely in the forefront but essential to the story” (ii). In this pictured performance, Bas’s character is closeted, behind a curtain, and on the side of the stage looking at the performers onstage. This effect could be seen as a euphemism or a metaphor for the character’s homosexuality and how the character would be unable to perform on the heterosexual stage. Because of the character’s sexuality, he is incapable of adhering to what Messner references and Adrienne Rich terms the “institution of compulsory heterosexuality” (iii). The character is literally closeted and put behind the curtain out of sight.

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

Another way in which Hernan Bas employs the idea of performance as a metaphor for one’s internal struggle with his or her sexuality is by his reference to the Ballets Russes. Bas’s decision to choose this particular company is significant because of the history of the Russian Ballet. Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, brought in choreographers to challenge the traditions of ballet.

The Rite of Spring proved to be the most controversial as most of the audience left in the middle of the performance (v). The music wasn’t melodic, but rather consisted of atypical noises such as typewriters and horns. The movement became strikingly aggressive at times casting away balletic aesthetic lines. This reference to this specific company can be seen as a metaphor for how Bas’s character subverts gender expectations through his performance of homosexuality.

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

One can appreciate Hernan Bas’s work They Can Bring the Curtain Down without the context of Michael Messner’s “Becoming 100% Straight” for his aesthetically pleasing portraits and historical reference to the Ballets Russes. However, without this article the viewer potentially looses the ability to easily see how Bas used his eight images as a metaphor for the performance of sexuality. They Can Bring the Curtain Down serves as Hernan Bas’s musings over his own interest in gender and sexuality in men.

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.

Works Cited

(i). “Centerfield | Against Nature: An Interview with Hernan Bas.” Art 21 magazine, 19 Oct. 2017, http://magazine.art21.org/2011/12/27/centerfield-against-nature-an-interview-with-hernan-bas/#.WeU84NOGNsM.

(ii). “Artists: Hernan Bas.” Institute for Research in Art: Graphicstudio, 19 Oct. 2017, http://www.graphicstudio.usf.edu/GS/artists/bas_hernan/bas.html.

(iii). Messner, Michael A. “Becoming 100% Straight.” Inside Sports, edited by Jay Coakley and Peter Donnelly, Taylor and Francis Ltd., 1999, pp. 227-232.

(iv). Bartky, Sandra Lee. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Northeastern UP, 1988.

(v). “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.” Youtube, uploaded by National Gallery of Art, 19 Oct. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmsR8eR2-MI.

Hernan Bas. From They Can Bring the Curtain Down, 2010. direct gravure, 8 images in a paper folio.
21 x 17-1/2 inches, edition of 25.


Natalie Bohin
BA English, Literary Studies
College of the Arts and Sciences
Department of English
University of South Florida

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