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For Gary Baseman, 'The Door' is wide open and ready for more

The artist just can't stop tinkering with his exhibition, 'The Door Is Always Open,' at the Skirball Cultural Center, a reflection of his busy mind.

June 01, 2013|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • Gary Baseman incorporates furniture and other items from his life in his exhibition at Skirball Center.
Gary Baseman incorporates furniture and other items from his life in his… (Dan Krauss )

Artist Gary Baseman has arrived at the Skirball Cultural Center with a brightly colored throw pillow under his arm and a determined look on his face.

After greeting security guards and the few visitors browsing his sprawling retrospective exhibition "The Door Is Always Open," Baseman placed the pillow on a sofa in one of the galleries. He took several snapshots and kept adjusting the pillow until it looked just right to him.

The pillow was no ordinary decorative item. It was a loud blue with a menacing message spelled out in flowery lettering: "Play with me or else."

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Is that a threat? Or just a dark joke? Like much of Baseman's pop-surrealist art, it can be interpreted different ways: humorous and threatening, bizarre and comforting, a cushion to be cuddled or used to suffocate.

Baseman's fantasy worlds are populated by demonic clowns, cute monsters and psychedelic dolls pulled from his childhood subconscious. His work contains elements of Marc Chagall, Walt Disney and Takashi Murakami.

Even though the retrospective had already opened with more than 400 items, Baseman is still adding material. In his cluttered, constantly churning state of mind, no work is completely finished until it is pulled from his hands, usually by force of deadline.

Luckily for Baseman, the security guards at the Skirball haven't stopped him from tinkering with his own show.

The exhibition, running through Aug. 18, is modeled upon the four-plex building in Los Angeles' Fairfax district where Baseman grew up.

"I didn't want to create a typical gallery space," the artist explained. He said that rummaging through the clutter of his late parents' home — his father died in 2010 and his mother in October — gave him the idea of making his family life public.

The exhibition has vintage family furniture that visitors can touch and sit on: a dining table prepared for a seder dinner; bright orange arm chairs and a living room couch so lived-in, its cushions threaten to swallow people who sit on it.

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The show's eclectic and somewhat manic nature reflects the multiple facets of the Baseman career arc. Visitors may recognize illustrations he's done for publications, including covers for Time, the Atlantic and the New Yorker magazines as well as the L.A. Times Calendar section.

He has designed big-eyed toys (his "Toby" doll is the most famous) and the Hasbro board game Cranium.

He was the co-creator of the 2000 Disney animated TV series "Teacher's Pet," with Nathan Lane as the voice of a dog who aspires to be a boy. (The Emmy Awards that Baseman won for the show are in the exhibition.)

There's little that is subtle about Baseman's art and the same could be said for Baseman himself. Voluble, with an enthusiasm that comes at you like a tidal wave, Baseman is a 52-year-old with an adolescent sense of exuberant mischief.

"I want to disarm people with my art. I want them to feel their own 'uncomfortableness,'" he said.

If there's a thread that unifies the retrospective, it's the primacy of family, specifically the pull of his Jewish roots. There are numerous family photographs — from seders, bar mitzvahs, birthday gatherings.

His parents fled Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe and made L.A. their home after spending several years in Canada. His father was an electrician and his mother worked in the bakery at Canter's Deli.

The exhibition's title is a homage to Baseman's father, who frequently entertained guests at their home.

"That's what I want to create in this show, the feeling that everyone is welcome to my home," said the artist.

Chez Baseman

For the last six years, Baseman has lived on the first floor of a duplex on a quiet street near Carthay Circle. It was supposed to be temporary following his divorce several years ago, but it doesn't look like he's moving anytime soon, given the amount of clutter throughout the home.

He said his ex-wife got their four-bedroom house in the Mid-Wilshire area in the divorce settlement.

"I was the first person in my family to get divorced," he said. "It was a dark period for me."

At Chez Baseman, art and life coexist in a chaotic tangle. The rooms are full of projects in mid-creation, numerous Apple devices and boxes destined for art-storage limbo.

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Baseman riffled through some of his files and pulled out a 20-year-old illustration. It was the first drawing he submitted to the New Yorker.

"They sent me a letter saying thanks, but no thanks," he recalled. Eventually, after much persistence and many submissions, they said yes — Baseman's first cover for the magazine was in 2002.

He sorted through old illustrations, many of which he made while living in Brooklyn from 1986 to 1996. After a pause, he said, "I no longer cringe when I look at my old work."

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