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Tweaking the traditional

An Artist Couple Enliven Their Hancock Park Home With Offbeat Collections

August 22, 2004|Barbara Thornburg

Artist Gary Baseman wears many hats--painter, illustrator, producer, author and inventor. He also wears many heads, depending on his mood. Standing in front of his 1920s Hancock Park home, he slips on Toby, a large cat head with unblinking pink eyes that is the model for a "sculpture-toy" that he plans to market next year. "He's your best friend and knows all your best and worst qualities," he says of the fez-topped feline.

Baseman's work, chronicled in his new book "Dumb Luck," blurs high and low art. The same might be said of the decor in the traditional two-story home that he shares with his wife, Mel, an illustrator. Highbrow tufted-leather Ralph Lauren sofas in the living room mingle with gargoyles, devil heads and a Magic 8 Ball. Michelin men grace the top of a 1920s lacquered Chinese table. In the central hall, a tiara-toting rabbit, once part of a kids' shoe-store display, is juxtaposed with a hand-painted French desk and an antique Venetian mirror.

Baseman describes the home's style as "surreal-traditional," and nowhere is that theme more evident than in his art studio and "playroom" at the back of the house. A side wall of closets in the long room is painted with Baseman's strange yet sympathetic characters: Hotchachacha, a flying devil with a penchant for stealing angels' halos; Gefilte, a fish without a midsection; and Toby heads all float in a surreal cosmos of detached hearts and eyeballs.

Nearby, two large steel cabinets are chockablock with doll heads and vintage Felix the Cat and Warner Bros. cartoon figures. On the opposite side of the room, a four-drawer chest displays '30s and '40s lingerie mannequins under the gaze of a vintage black cat advertising sign. The couple's real inky-hued kitties--Abracadabra, Big Girl, Little Girl and Itty Bitty--lie about the room.

And the rocket ship next to his drawing board? "It's a wastepaper basket--a Christmas gift from my wife," he explains. "When we met we were both collecting Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers space guns. We have 30 or 40--you never know when aliens are going to break into your house."

The couple's zany collections infuse the large, comfortable home with an edginess that is right up Baseman's back alley. (The cover of his new book features a peg-legged rabbit holding his "lucky" foot.) "We love to juxtapose serious furnishings with unexpected, playful pieces," he says. In the Basemans' surreal world, a dining table topped with a carnival gorilla head and a vase of pink peonies seems perfectly natural.

The artist often uses the whimsical collectibles as his muse. "I'm never alone," he says. "To get a tinkle of inspiration, I just have to turn my head."



Gary Baseman,

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