To visit Gary Baseman's new exhibit at the Skirball, is truly like being being welcomed into his childhood home. There's even a custom doormat that you can wipe your feet on.You can wander in and out of a series of rooms that successfully blur the reality he grew up in with the imaginary world he envisioned and channeled through his early passion for art. This "house" concept also symbolizes entering an amazing mindset of openness and transparency. It represents where most of his formative influences originated. You are inside his home base. Gary Baseman's work is, at it's core, rather child-like. It features a cast of colorful characters who are often wide-eyed. They have funny names and mapped out back stories.They wear somewhat disturbing pasted smiles on their faces. There is a tendency for many of them to to drip, ooze and drool a variety of fluids all over his canvas worlds. Skeletons mingle with the living. Little girls keep the company of unlikely friends. His themes make you feel safe, and yet slightly on edge at the same time.
The amount of personal information, family history, home movies (with Gary narrating the play by play), the real family photos, the knick knacks, the dated decorating, all create a rare voyeuristic work of art itself. And, you won't be arrested for peaking through these windows. His guard is voluntarily down and he's happy to share. Gary's served up a delicious banquet for the senses that will feed your imagination. It may even inspire you to draw literally and figuratively from your heritage in future endeavors.
The show encourages children and children at heart to pick up a utensil and doodle something in a notebook like his. Try anything. Do it. Give it a try. Express yourself. Have fun. There are no rules. There are no right or wrongs here. Everyone has their own unique and special gift. Gary's giving you the thumbs up. Develop it. Share it. Breathe it. This supportive message resonates around every corner and the designed accessibility of the environment is obviously reflective of Gary's loving upbringing.
Gary's family survived the Holocaust. Until more recently, as an adult mourning the loss of his parents, he traveled to the locations they escaped. In an effort to better understand what they lived through and got past, he immersed himself in his family's past. He dressed as one of his characters. It was kind of like an all-seeing ghost. His parents still live on in spirit and you can tell they meant the world to him and the world he's created.
In the "bedroom," I kept waiting for some creature to pop out from under the bed and start gnawing on my toes. Or, perhaps it would have been nice if some not-so-well-hidden porn from his adolescence was sticking out of the mattress so that we could catch a peek of where some of his more adult-themed work was inspired by. I mean, wouldn't a porn magazine with Gary Baseman doodles be interesting? Maybe those pages would not be as easy to flip through. You do see interesting samples of work from his early life and you realize he has always been a very prolific artist who smartly approached opportunities that got his unique style the best exposure.
His mom worked at Canter's Deli for years. I love that. I'm sure he's hung out here quite often over the years. That was his childhood. I love Canter's, too. No matter the hour, it's always the fun place to people watch and the place for an over-stuffed liverwurst sandwich on rye. I had several great holiday meals there with the other LA orphans who didn't go home. It represents kitsch and proves you don't need to fix something that isn't broken.
They say "Home is where the heart is" and I can say that the heart and love can be felt in every element of this show. Gary's enthusiasm, showmanship and talent comes to a beautiful conclusion. You end up in the "back yard" where his low-brow style depicts a range of high brow themes that touch on traditions, immortality and devotion. Deity-like characters from his canvases now loom large in front of you and you can't help but worship them. You want to embrace them in a goodbye and hope they will embrace back.
It was hard going home. I wanted to run and hide under the decorated dining room table and wait till the museum closed so I could have the place to myself. I wanted to sleep over at Gary's house and let his creations jump off the wallpaper and into my dreams/nightmares. I wanted to sit in his living room and watch hours of "Teacher's Pet" while polishing his Emmy's for him. I wanted to have a board game night playing "Cranium" and fall asleep watching his fun home movie projects on a sheet while his pinnate creatures float overhead.
Gary, thanks for your hospitality and your creativity. You really know how to entertain your house guests. Never change and keep on doing it your way.
"The Door is Alway Open" will be housed at the Skirball Cultural Center till August 18th. Drop on by, no need to call ahead.
Words by Rick Galiher. Images by Stephanie Chefas.