Ever see a show that is soooooo good you want to shout it from the rooftops and post ever single picture you took? But at the same time it’s so good you don’t want to spoil the surprise? The Gary Baseman retrospective “The Door is Always Open” at the Skirball Center is one of those shows: Wondrous, inspiring, colorful, touching, driven, and full of surprises–both sweet and deeply sad.
But since Wednesday was the preview walk through with Gary and the curators, designed by tradition for us, the press, to take pictures and write up descriptions, well, attention! Spoilers abound, but I have restrained myself somewhat.
The “Door is Always Open” is a multimedia show that recreates an idealized dreamlike house, based on Baseman’s childhood homes in the Fairfax District. It reflects is idea of pervasive art, that art should infuse every aspect of society, and Baseman has done that: He has worked as a commercial artist, in television, film music, video, game design, interior design and fine art, bringing his aesthetic to everything he does. His work is instantly recognizable, vivid, a world of his own making.
All of the wallpaper is custom for the show (and available in the gift shop); much of the furniture is from his parents’ or relatives’ home. The Living Room features uncle’s chairs and couches that Gary as a kid was never allowed to sit on–now, jokes the artist, he’s got his revenge on his uncle, since everyone is invited to sit down.
Invitation: That is whole concept of “The Door is Always Open” a phrase his father would use all time to Gary to let know him that his friends could drop in any time, and once Gary was a grown up himself, that he should come by anytime (the phrase also refers to the door between worlds, between the conscious and the unconscious; that portal being open allows for creativity to flow into manifestation). Visitors are invited to sit and linger: To play a game of Cranium (Gary designed it), watch episodes of Teacher’s Pet, the Disney cartoon Gary created and thumb through his sketch books and storyboards in Den; to create their own art in Art Studio; to browse through Office with Gary’s work as illustrator (12 to 20 editorial illustrations a month was his average output) and shelves of his inspiration like mannequin hands and statues of cartoon figures.
It may seem pretty ballsy to have a retrospective of your life’s work when you don’t even qualify yet for senior discount tickets at the movies, but Gary Baseman knew from when he was little boy that all he wanted to do is be the World’s Greatest Artist (He admits that he has another three hundred or so years to go). Luckily, not only did he have talent, he had loving, supportive parents who encouraged him to express himself.
Baseman’s self-expression is evident throughout “The Door is Always Open.” His paintings hang in every room; his characters, expressions of his psyche, all have places at the dining table that came from his parents house. Their chairs are draped with embroidered seat covers bearing their names, and at the head sits Toby, Baseman’s magical best friend/alter-ego. The Dining Room celebrates feasts and holidays, with photos of Gary’s Bar Mitzvah and family Seders, while revealing human hungers.
It’s clear how much Gary and his family loved each other. You see it in the family films that play in the Living Room where Gary’s Emmys and fifth place race trophy rest on the mantle next a photo of young Gary in his Fairfax High track uniform, and in the filmed family celebrations that play in the Dining Room. The dark, black and gray papered Study reveals Gary’s parents’ past: They were both Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, where most of Gary’s relatives were killed by the Nazis. Gary’s father escaped and lived in the forest, then joined Russian soldiers as a partisan (resistance) fighter; a new work, Wolyner Forest Warrior memorializes his father’s time in the woods. Baseman has painted in portraits of his grandparents into Wolyner Forest Warrior; their photo on the opposite wall hanging opposite at on his bedside table as a child. The Study is dark, peopled with ghostly images, with photos and mementos of those who have died, a somber reminder, a cthonic place that contrasts with the rest of the house’s bright joyfulness. Baseman visited the his parents’ villages and spent time in the forest, and there created a performance piece installation, photos of which hang in the study.
In the Bedroom where the unconscious comes alive at night, dreams and nightmares frolic across the wallpaper (Baseman says he doesn’t have nightmares or night dreams; all his dreaming is in the daytime). His parent’s bedroom furniture has received full Baseman treatment: a custom bedspread,pillows and wallpaper with his characters. His paintings hang on the walls, his character toys stand on the dressers; and in the closet three dresses designed by the Israeli fashion duo Frau Blau.
The Backyard is ready for a party (well almost–Baseman said he wanted even more piñatas based on his characters to dangle form the ceiling–and when I ran into him in the parking lot on our way into the museum his arms were laden with more items to place throughout the exhibit). Installations and costumes from his performance pieces La Noche de la Fusion and Giggle and Pop populate the lawn, while a sheet on the clothesline is the screen for Gary’s first foray into film making, his super-8 film, Super Pooper, made as a pre-teen; the blue, yellow and red tee shirt he wore as a super hero, decorated with the homemade Hebrew letter shin instead of an S also hangs on the washline.
Thursday April 25, Gary’s throwing a huge party to celebrate “The Door is Always Open” with a live performance by Nightmare and the Cat, Shepard Fairey DJing, Baseman live painting, and host of other surprises. Tickets for “Gary Baseman’s House Party” are $20 at the door, and the party starts at 7:30.
“The Door is Always Open” shows the influence of the American Dream on immigrants and their children, the effects of the Holocaust, and highlights the unique experience of growing up Jewish in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District (Baseman will participate in a conversation on that subject with two of his lifelong friends TV writer SethKurland and composer Barry Smolin. The artist also hosting a bus tour of Gary Baseman’s LA which will include a stop at Canter’s Deli, where his mom worked for 35 years as the head bakery salesperson.) Also planned for families, a Baseman-themed museum sleepover and a children’s art day, led by the artist.
And yes the gift shop has many, many Baseman items including Toby, wallpaper, vinyl figurines, toys, playing cards, art sets, books, and even a beautiful limited edition mezuzah, the protector of the doors of Israel.
Gary Baseman, “The Door is Always Open”
2701 n. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Open Tuesday-Friday, noon to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm.
Admission is $10 general; $7 for seniors, full-time students, and children over 12; $5 for children 2-12.