It’s been a busy year for artist Gary Baseman. He’s had an intensely personal solo show in Israel, traveled across Japan in support of his friend and colleague Mark Ryden, and been hard at work staging the elements of his elaborate exhibition La Noche de la Fusión at Corey Helford Gallery in Culver City. In anticipation of the show’s opening, the LA native took time to chat with us, discussing the past, present, and future — and how they relate to his most ambitious show to date.
Tanja M. Laden: How is this show different from your solo shows in the past?
Gary Baseman: It’s so different, because it’s much more than an exhibition itself. I wanted to create an event, kind of a mythic holiday and celebration to go along with the body of work.
TML: Could you describe how you came to select the title, La Noche de la Fusión? And why did you choose Spanish?
GB: I wanted to break down my own personal boundaries that I felt society created for me. I needed to blur those lines to understand who I truly am. There are a lot of people in this world who are afraid to take that step, people who are living in these confines, in these small rooms, in these prisons, in a way — and miserable, not free to be able to be themselves. So I thought there should be a celebration of it. Life isn’t perfect; there’s beauty in the imperfection of life, and there’s beauty in the success and the failure, there’s beauty in the purity and the impurity. I could have said “the night of the melting,” or something like that. For me, it wasn’t as romantic, and I wanted to play off this sense of poetry. And of course, I’m a giant fan of Día de los Muertos. Somehow, growing up in Los Angeles, being born and raised here, and being close to the Hispanic community — I decided to pick Spanish, even though I don’t speak anything but English.
TML: La Noche de la Fusión will feature, among other things, a “ritual transformation ceremony.” Could you describe what this will be?
GB: My friend Wendy Benbrook, an Emmy Award-winning costume designer, put together these Carnivale-type costumes that girls will be wearing. Three of them are major ones with big headdresses — there’s a fourth, too — and then six other girls in secondary costumes that interact with the crowd. So three of them are going to be around, the fourth one is involved in the metamorphosis. I call it the “sacrifice,” in the sense that you have to give up something to become something. I chose a girl to be in a cocoon — to put in a cocoon, in away. And again, the idea of having this boundary, this wall, and this notion of somebody who is unable, without removing these boundaries, to be who they ought to be or who they will become. And to make it dramatic, I also have Wendy making a henchman-esque costume for me to wear where I’ll cut out the cocoon girl and have her turn into a butterfly. Hopefully it will all work really well. Right now, we’re gonna have a tree, where she’s gonna be tied up, and then I’ll cut her out of the cocoon. So that’s where this metamorphosis will happen, the idea of showing the boundaries being removed to allow someone to become a butterfly. The little butterfly character who I created about two or three years ago was named Lafayette, which is named after the French general who helped fight for American Independence. And so the whole notion of a butterfly, for me, symbolizes independence and freedom.
TML: How have your recent extensive travels influenced the contents of the show?
GB: The travels influenced it a lot in the sense that the one thing I noticed everywhere I went was that everyone’s pretty much the same. Everyone wants to live their life, everyone wants to be happy, everyone has a sense of freedom and they all want to express themselves. So as crazy and different as places can be, where language is different, and food is different, and culture is different — pretty much everyone’s the same. And with the growth of the computer, and now, with the BlackBerry and everything, people can connect to each other immediately. Like, at 4 o’clock in the morning, I’m Skyping with a friend in Beijing, who wants to bring me out, who wants to do a story for an art magazine. We’re connecting with people all over the place.
TML: While your works have always had a mystical quality, the art in this show seem to be especially influenced by spiritual forces. How are any personal transformations/epiphanies/awakenings manifested in your artwork?
GB: I’m a first-generation American. I come from parents who came from Poland and Russia. They were Holocaust survivors. And for them coming from a land where they were persecuted for being different, they worked hard at having me assimilate and know that I’m American. The way I grew up as a child, growing up in Hollywood, going to Fairfax High, and UCLA, I grew up as a really good kid. I didn’t drink or smoke. I didn’t have a girlfriend till I was, like, 18. I was a really nerdy kid, an overachiever. Somehow, I thought if I did everything right, I’d be rewarded, but then I realized that nobody gave a fuck. But it took me a long, long time, so I’m probably living my own new adolescence, in a way – in some respects, rebelling.
I always wanted to be an artist, since I was a kid, and I didn’t study art formally. So I tried to live my life as an artist, but also knew that you have to have some kind of security, so I worked in advertising. And everywhere I tried to compromise, I found myself miserable. But I was also scared to death of failing as an artist, ’cause this is all I ever wanted to do. So if I tried to make a living as an artist and I failed, I had nothing to fall back on. But I wanted to have the security that my parents wanted me to have, or what society says you’re supposed to have. And because I was miserable doing anything but my art, I found myself pushing myself towards my art. So that’s where I started out as a commercial artist, moving to New York, doing work for close to every magazine known to man. I was a fucking art machine. I was a good soldier. But I still loved my own personal work; I would do it on the side. Then I got to the point in my life where a lot of my friends like Mark Ryden, the Clayton Brothers, and Eric White — who were all once illustrators — became painters. When we started out, illustrators weren’t allowed to show in galleries. There was one gallery called the Illustration Gallery in New York in the East Village where you were allowed to show, but no legitimate fine art gallery would show you.
And things started to change, the walls started coming down, the walls started blurring. So then I wanted to see how far I could go as a painter, where I wasn’t being influenced by my own commercial artwork, even though my commercial work was still my own visual voice. So if I did have those voices in me, what could I create? As a painter, I gave up all the commercial work and lived off of my savings, in a way, while I pursued painting. And since I still had a following from my commercial work, I was able to sell my paintings. But in between that, I also created an animated TV show for Disney. I produced that, and I loved that too. So while I was doing my painting, my commercial work, and TV, then I started doing these vinyl toys that became really popular. I was involved in street culture, and those things were like sculpture for the masses.
TML: You call your genre of art “pervasive art.” What does that mean?
GB: Pervasive art knocks down the walls of all the different media; it’s my own definition. As long as you stay true to your aesthetic, and you have a strong message, you can put your art on anything. So you can mix fashion, or put it on skateboards, or TV, or video, or in an installation, or a gallery, you know? But the strength of the work is based on the concept, the idea, and the aesthetic, and not necessarily where it is placed or how it is used. And so that’s where pervasive art came around, and I used that term because I hated all the other terms. When people tried to call it lowbrow, or pop surrealism, to me, it was a bastardization of a term, of people trying to create an art movement based on content. To me, the content wasn’t as interesting.
I mean, yes, my art looks kind of cartoony. I have a certain kind of love for the 1930s and ’40s kind of art, but you have to look deeper, beyond the surface. A lot of my references are pop culture references, ‘cause that’s where I come from. I come from being a kid growing up on TV, so as a child, that was perfection – old Warner Bros. cartoons, Fleischer brothers, old Disney, was what I thought was the perfect way of drawing, rather than just traditional life drawing. So I used that as my alphabet, in a way. But the messages that I have to say are very adult and very personal, but there’s something about it that everyone can understand, ‘cause it’s all about what I’m really trying to understand: the human condition. At first it looks very playful, it looks innocent, and sweet, and the colors are bright pinks and purples, and it tastes good. Then you look deeper, and it’s nutritious. For me, anyways.
TML: Who are other pervasive artists?
GB: A lot of my friends, a lot of people out here. Again, Mark Ryden – he’s able to produce his prints and products, has an amazing following, and came from the world of illustration to be, I think, one of the most important painters of our generation. The Clayton Brothers, also, in the way that they are able to produce. It has nothing to do with style, it removes style. Look at Shepard Fairey – somebody who has street art, but then has a magazine, has a clothing line, has a design studio. To me, pervasive art is not just being driven to make your art, but to get it out in other places. You could say somebody like Picasso, who did his paintings, but wasn’t afraid to do vases and Verve, and publications and prints. He produced almost 500,000 pieces of art or something! It’s not letting anything hold you back, you know? I have swimsuits from a fashion company in Thailand with my art on it, and also, I have the handbags and stuff. Like Camille Rose Garcia – she has her dolls, she has her stories, she has her beautiful paintings. Shag, also. I mean, there’s all these different artists, and for some reason, we’re all located out here in Los Angeles.
TML: You have been saying for years that Los Angeles is the current arts capital of the world. Why?
GB: People just happen to be living here, moving here. I lived in New York for ten years, and I moved back to create a TV show. I just saw these young galleries opening up, and people were starting to show their work and creating art. And maybe because people could have small galleries where they could take chances and not have things cost so much, or they had to work within a certain genre of painting, like in New York, where things were expected of you. It’s kind of like the wild, wild west out here. So people are able to not just paint, they can sew, they can produce, they can do anything, and then put it in a gallery. And so people are able to take a lot more risks, and I think with those risks, there are so many talented people here. I love it out here. I’m not exactly sure why most of us happen to be living out here. There’s just a great group of artists out here that I’m excited about.
TML: What challenges did you encounter in preparation for this show?
GB: I overextended myself, ’cause I’ve been traveling so much. I just got back from Japan — maybe I should have canceled that trip, but I wanted to go and support my friend Mark Ryden, who had a beautiful show in Tokyo. But I was also able to get a lot of sketches done, through Tokyo — all the things that I did while I was in Japan, and all the little drawings and characters that I was able to create while I was there. And then before that, I was in Israel. I had a solo show. I went out there for three weeks, had an exhibition, did a four-day workshop, did a live anti-war painting, and a lecture at the Arab-Jewish Cultural Center.
Really, I went out there to slay dragons and I ended up not being able to do it. It hit me the wrong way. I went there to slay those dragons so I could just be me, and when I went there, I wanted to be good again, you know? It was really weird. It was like being there and seeing all these people living their lives, and especially in Israel, barely surviving during this war. I was there when I was four years old and seeing these Holocaust survivors creating this new land, and saying it was for me, to have the freedom to be who you are. So I wanted to go out there again, and every time I did a lecture, I probably got teary-eyed. It was like going through therapy every single day for three weeks! It was so emotional. It kind of threw me for a loop, ‘cause I knew what I wanted to produce in La Noche de la Fusión, but then I took that other baggage of understanding who I am, going beyond, and wanting to be good, playing a different role.
But coming back here and getting the show done was not just getting the paintings done. It became a whole organizational challenge. I had to get a lot of interns and people to help me, but it was also coordinating this whole event. And so thank God I have good friends who are involved.
TML: How has becoming increasingly well-known affected how you live and work?
GB: I’ll let you know when I’m well known. I’m not as well known as I’d like to be. One example of what I’ve been able to accomplish was two years ago, when I worked with Jan and Bruce at the Corey Helford Gallery, we wanted to put a charity event together. We came up with an idea of taking vintage paint-by-numbers and having a contemporary artist paint on top of them, and then auctioning them off and raising money for the Alliance for Children’s Rights. So my being known allowed me to contact any artist that I wanted, and they were able to respond. I could get my friends like Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Richard Colman, Rob and Christian Clayton, and Camille Rose Garcia– we just got everyone involved in this thing. We got 100 amazing artists to participate. And everyone offered their services, created the art, gave it to us, and we raised $200,000 for the Alliance of Children’s Rights.
TML: What do you hope the future has in store for you professionally?
GB: I would love to be more involved in TV again, with film, fashion, with my paintings. I want to be able to create bigger installations that are projects for the city. I’d love to create a giant Happy Idiot sculpture here in the Fairfax area, to have it in Farmers Market, in my hometown. I would love to have a big, giant, 60-foot one of him – a big fountain with the snowman and his little creatures all around that people and kids could come and play and go into the water, you know? I want to be successful enough to create whatever I want and have certain dreams and be able to collaborate with more and more people to articulate my vision. I’m hoping if my art is successful, and I’m able to get it out, and I’m able to inspire people, and I’m able to get people to give themselves the opportunity to express themselves and better themselves, then I’ll be able to take more risks and more chances in the things that I want to put together.[Via]