Back before the war, a bunch of Cambridge students would climb up the city’s ancient buildings, sneak around on roofs, take pictures and generally get up to illegal shenanigans. Proto-parkour, that’s what the Night Climbers of Cambridge were into. It’s this mischievous group – and more contemporary incidents of student debauchery – that inspired American painter Hernan Bas’s latest show at Victoria Miro.
The exhibition is filled with paintings of young men squeezed between buildings, resting on rooftops or lying languidly on riverbanks, shirts off and sweaty. These works are idealised, romantic, dangerous and sensual – an outsider’s view of boys’ japes in the stuffy unmade bed of British academia. It’s knowingly old-fashioned, a vision of naughty Cambridge lads through a fog of 1940s nostalgia. But I quite like that pervy male-on-male-gaze vibe; it feels pre-war, forbidden. Some of the painting is a bit overwrought and hammy, maybe at points even a little rushed, but the charcoals work better. All these debauched poshos doing stupid crap among the spires, somehow it makes me like England, and feel deeply nostalgic for my own days in Cambridge… and I didn’t even go to Cambridge. That’s how evocative this show is: it makes me think I’m smarter than I am.