"The Door is Always Open" on view at the Skirball Cultural Center till August 18, 2013
Gary Baseman's retrospective "The Door is Always Open" at the Skirball in LA opened recently to massive crowds in a huge celebratory opening party. The exhibition is so complex and personal, delving into Baseman's background, family history, and all the layers of prolific work that he has done over the years. After the opening festivities winded down, I caught up with Baseman for an interview. We discussed the underlying meaning to some of the components of the show and how it felt for him, coming from such an honest personal perspective in putting this massive show together.
Gary: Well even when I give a tour of the exhibition or look at just the exhibition itself, it has so many layers to it. So because I was determined when I put together the exhibition to not have a traditional retrospective, but that I was trying to create this kind of art installation- this kind of environment to engage the viewer and in a way disarm them. I wanted to bring them in to the space, to make them part of it and for them to be able to interact with the art differently than just a viewer looking at a painting behind glass. That became such an overwhelming process, so in some ways when I first give a tour of the exhibition itself, you get caught up in the concept. And then because each room represents a theme in my work, you almost end up removing the actual exhibitions themselves.
So again, there are so many layers of not just the work as art, it's the work also as history, as memory and heritage and so you're dealing with a sense of family. For me it was a way to honor my family my parents for one by having their furniture, their original furniture, in there.
G: Yeah, this is a very deep emotional exhibition. The furniture in the Living Room, the Dining Room and the Bedroom was my parents furniture. My mom passed away in October and at first I was going to mainly use relatives' furniture to capture that era, cause its not only my family but its also the Fairfax District that I grew up in. But when my mom passed away in October I made the decision to use family furniture. My brothers and sisters said it was cool and so I moved my parents' furniture that they had left in their home of 48 years and used it in the exhibition.
G: Well the process already started when my father passed away three years ago.... ~continue reading
When I was born my parents were older, when they had me, so they were almost more like grandparents in a way. But then also when my father passed I became overwhelmed with needing to be the keeper of his story. In the sense that I've had these characters called these Magi Spirits, that are the keeper of one's memories, that I had in an exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of Art. Then with Toby's Secret Society and these Magi, so it became for me about that after my dad passed. He had this serious history that I never saw firsthand because I was born and raised in LA. It all happened twenty years before I was alive, so for me it was knowing some of his story and having to search to discover new secrets about my family and finding a way to tell that tale in a way that I'm also talking about my art and my career.
Then also being able to not just create this environment but having to partner up with others like Astek who's doing the wallpaper, and my friend Rebecca Sevrin, who did the table cloths and the bedspread and slipcovers and Lori Meeker who did the pillows- all these little elements that fill the space with a sense of meaning of character. But also dealing with growing up as a son of survivors and being a first generation American and dealing with what the "American dream" means to me and having a father who was always telling me about that American Dream. Growing up not studying fine art or any kind of art.
I was a communications major so my background is in free speech and the first amendment and what does that represent as an artist? For me that's pretty much everything- the best way to defend the first amendment is by participating in it. And with all those elements there's probably more in the show dealing with the theme of growing up in Southern California, in LA with Disneyland and cartoons and being inspired. Also, pop culture and the things I collect, but then we're dealing with the opening party and trying to make that an art experience in its own right, you know? So, for me, it was wanting to create an environment that's exciting and to give a certain homage to my other art performances like Giggle and Pop or La Noche- to bring in elements of that- so we made sure we had games made sure we had Wild Girls and ChouChous and some new characters. Then we had painting live with Nightmare and the Cat, which I've been doing for the past couple of years and then bringing Shepard in to deejay and doing a special print with him in honor of my dad. There's a lot of things. And then how I wanted to interact with the crowd: I created my own little type of presence on how I engaged people and how I offered people a memory piece when they greeted me.
G: No, it was my folks'. They were like grandparents. This is the key that actually belongs to the closet in my parents' home. I had Julie from Pretty in Plastic cast that key and then rework it to put a Toby head on it because Toby is the keeper of your secrets and this is the closet that I found this book about my fathers town that used to be in Poland but now it's part of the Ukraine. My parents were Holocaust survivors so these towns were completely mass murdered in the war, everyone was killed except for maybe a hundred people and my dad fled into the woods and became a Partisan. In that closet is not only where we kept the family albums but also there were interesting items and I would play in there as a kid. That's where, in the last few months, I found the book about my father's town. Many people wrote the story about it and there were pages in that book that talked about my father directly. I wanted to cast that key and I wasn't putting it in a gift bag where if just cause people came they would get a key. In fact, I had friends who were trying to just grab keys and I told them to put them back because the way I wanted people to receive keys was by engaging with me, by greeting me. Then I would tell them the story and invite them into my home and offer them a key to my house. So that's what I did. Unfortunately, there were thousands of people there- I had hundreds and hundreds of friends that couldn't even reach me, there were a lot of friends I didn't even realize were there.
G: Right, and in fact that's also what we did with the Rizzoli book, which they published for the exhibition even before the show was done. We spent six months, which should have been a year, but we only had six months to produce that book. So the book is like a house, where each chapter represents a room and each room represents a theme, and wrapping each chapter, not just with art, but with family photos. The interesting ones for me were the ones that were a little absurd and playful and were mixed with the art to kind of create the environment of each room.
G: No. I wish I could tell you there was one. We're still working on the backyard where I'm trying to add more piñatas to make it richer. But each one has a different kind of goal in how I want people to respond, you know? There's a kind of beauty to the dining room in that the room itself has wallpaper that is based on the actual wallpaper of my parents' house. The dining room and the dining room table is all my parents', so there's a certain kind of feeling in there. But the study is personally dealing with a new body of work and that's where I completed a new 4' x 9' painting. There's a certain importance there cause that's where my heart and my mind are now. I'm planning on creating a new show in the fall based on this birch forest. My fathers town Berezne, which mean birch tree in Slavic, which is wear they went, my parents and all the other survivors, or they would have been murdered… For me, that's something dealing with a sense of memory and memorium, in a way, so that's important to me. But the bedroom is playful with the dreams and nightmares you know? That rooms wild.
G: Yeah, so I mean all of them. My old days as an illustrator, I wanted to have something from then, cause it's so overwhelming but its controlled in a way with all of the images, I wanted to give something that represents my life as an illustrator and that's in the Den. I loved Teacher's Pet and Cranium and I wanted to create a room where people could sit on sofas and watch my series and play Cranium.
G: Well we're talking with Disney about that. There's only a few images that Disney has a say on, because with all the title cards I own the originals. Even though Disney owns the intellectual copyrights I'm allowed to use all that stuff for promotion. I think the Skirball is just trying to be safe and not get in trouble.
G: No, no- not a little bit. A lot.
G: Well, you know, the Skirball is not an Art Museum, it's a Cultural Museum and they work with a committee. So it wasn't necessarily my decision, but it was something I had to accept. I have such a depth in my work and my career that when I knew the more provocative pieces were not allowed we had to create a stronger theme. The way we did it, I could probably have a whole other retrospective and not duplicate anything.
G: Well, the hallway is all about journey. So I wanted to celebrate that in, its own right. It's about being inspired by other places and other cultures. It wasn't finished the night of the opening, but if you go in now you'll see that on each mantle is a retired Toby that has travelled. Each Toby that was up there on the back I had signed and dated where it visited. One Toby went to Eastern Europe, to the towns of my parents. Another Toby went to Argentina, another Toby was in Spain, another Toby was in Russia. So for me that was a way of being able to document that. And the studio isn't done yet. The studio is going to have more of my sketchbooks. There will be 135 sketchbooks, right now they have 70 displayed.
"The Door is Always Open" on view at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles through August 18, 2013
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