Gary Baseman is sitting in his studio and looking at various odd figures in the pages of a recent sketchbook.
"Who is this motherfucker? I don't know," he says. "I would draw these things and six months later I'll understand who this is. But I don't understand who they are now."
By repeating this process over the years, he's created a cast of weird, fairy tale–esque creatures who show up in many of his paintings, sculptures and other works. There's his alter ego, Toby, the eternally smiling, black, white and red character with big eyes who keeps your secrets. There's Chou Chou, the pink, oval-headed darling who absorbs girls' negative energy and oozes it out of his belly button as warm goo. Baseman even honors his father — who fought for the Polish resistance in World War II — through the Buckingham Warrior, a green, multiheaded figure with tree branches for limbs.
Thankfully for art lovers, Baseman has spent decades feverishly doodling these figures in sketchbooks, even when it got him fired from the only full-time job he's ever had, for ad agency Dailey & Associates on Wilshire Boulevard. He spent the rest of his life as an artist.
As with his adorable creatures with serious backstories, Baseman specializes in creating seemingly benign, classical or cute scenes offset by a disturbing, surreal or humorous twist. He'll take a straightforward portrait or landscape and add small drips of paint over the vignette, or create furry creatures with fangs protruding from their bloody mouths. It's telling that one of his main influences is Hieronymus Bosch's debaucherous 1504 painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Baseman's style fit easily into the pop culture–influenced alternative galleries in Los Angeles, such as La Luz de Jesus, and eventually spread around the world via his work as a fine artist and in other guises, including toy designer, illustrator and TV writer. Now in his 50s, Baseman continue to defy the standard definition of an artist.
"The Door Is Always Open," a survey of Baseman's work running through Aug. 18, doesn't fit the traditional bill, either. For one thing, the show is at the usually conservative Skirball Cultural Center. While Baseman's work seems whimsical on the surface, a closer look reveals missing body parts, strange skeletons and naked women.
Yet Baseman's heritage — which ultimately shaped a lot of his work — matches that of the Skirball, which focuses on Jewish history. Baseman's parents survived the Holocaust and came to the United States via Canada in 1957 with his two older brothers and sister. As the only one born here, years after his siblings, the artist calls himself his parents' "American dream accident."
With a big age gap between himself and his siblings, young Baseman wandered the streets of the Fairfax District alone. As it is today, the area in the 1960s was a hub of pop culture — he frequented places like the Pan Pacific Auditorium, Gilmore's Drive-In and CBS Television City, where he attended free screenings. He was especially inspired by Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett coming to speak in his class.
Baseman disliked the work coming out of nearby schools like Art Center because he felt too much of it fit a certain art-school aesthetic. He headed to UCLA, where he majored in communication.
In his 20s, despite his parents' initial objections, he left L.A. for New York because he wanted "to be known internationally." He started to gain fame there through illustrations for publications such as The Atlantic and Time. After a decade there, editorial work felt too creatively restraining, and that, mixed with his desire to work in television and the relatively cold New York climate, brought Baseman back to Los Angeles.
He recalls that in New York, even established illustrators did not get shows in galleries — that was for the more traditional artists. But in late-1990s Los Angeles, he and similar colleagues such as Mark Ryden, the Clayton Brothers and Eric White had more opportunities.
The group eventually became a new art movement, called lowbrow or pop surrealism, known for referencing advertising icons, cartoon characters and other aspects of pop culture. Although Baseman acknowledges the movement's pop culture references, he dislikes its names, feeling the "actual work is manifested with more poetic quality."
"People would be calling us 'lowbrow' because we used pop culture references," he says. "But for me, I didn't like them just trying to dictate our title based on content, because I don't think that was the reason for our art."
He prefers the term "pervasive," referring to the way the group's artwork found various outlets — including magazines and television — so that ultimately, "The message transcended just the canvas."
"The Door Is Always Open" transcends the canvas as well. Much of the exhibit is a re-creation of Baseman's childhood home, complete with a small mailbox, custom-made Baseman wallpaper and his family's furniture.
Baseman's parents recently died and he traveled to Eastern Europe on a Fulbright fellowship to teach art in Latvia and visit his parents' hometowns of Berezne and Kostopol (once part of Poland but now in the Ukraine), where they survived the Holocaust. One photograph in the catalog shows Baseman in a costume similar to his Magi of Truth, a character from the toy series he designed called "Toby's Secret Society." He stands at a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw in mostly white garb with the word "Emet," Hebrew for truth, stitched across his chest and, over his face, a hood decorated with a giant eye.
The trip wasn't an easy one. "I'm a dude. I don't usually cry. I used to never cry, but when I get myself wrapped up in that world, I find myself in tears and I'm, like, now I know why they didn't tell me all this stuff," Baseman says. "I mean — and I'm not a kid now. I don't think I could've handled it when I was in my 20s or my teens. I can barely handle it now."
Baseman describes the show's catalog as a "love letter" to the Fairfax District but especially his parents, who allowed and inspired him to keep making art. It includes a sketch Baseman drew at his father's deathbed. The exhibit has family photographs, which he often reinterpreted in his sketchbooks, and a yizkor book, a written account from surviving members of his parents' towns. "The Door Is Always Open" comes from a phrase his father said to Baseman as a child to tell him that no matter where he was in life, his parents would always welcome him in their home.
"My Magi Spirits, they're the keeper of your story, the keeper of your memory," Baseman says, referring to a series of characters he created. "And then when my father passed away, it was, like, fuck — I'm the keeper of his memory. I'm the keeper of his story. If I don't tell his story, it'll be lost."
"There are artists that want to see their lives more separate from their work, but for him it's really one," Skirball curator Doris Berger says. "It's together."
Yet some parts of the exhibit feel like more of a Baseman fantasy land. In the den, visitors can sit on couches from Baseman's home while watching episodes of his Emmy-winning, animated television show Teacher's Pet, which aired from 2000-02 on ABC and Toon Disney. Or they can play the popular board game Cranium and its child-friendly version, Cadoo, both of which Baseman designed.
For both Baseman and Berger, planning the show required compromises — such as what to include and what to cut. Baseman, for instance, has more than 100 sketchbooks from the 1980s to today. Plus, there's the issue of family-friendliness. The bedroom section in the catalog shows risque works with nude girls frolicking alongside Baseman's characters, but they ultimately stayed out of the exhibit.
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Still, Baseman embraced the idea of child visitors. The show includes a room modeled after his studio, where visitors — especially kids — can look at Baseman's sketchbooks and use them as inspiration.
"I wanted people to come into this home," he says, "and whatever inhibition they had from their grandparents or other people, or whoever told you, 'you can't draw,' 'you can't write' — you can do it in my home and no one's going to judge you."
THE DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN | Skirball Cultural Center | 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. | Through Aug. 18 | skirball.org