This week’s Featured Interview with artist Gary Baseman will be a five part series, a new part of the story released every day of this week. Welcome to Garypalooza!
Gary Baseman has to be the most Hollywood artist. He’s an artist that is from Los Angeles with international name recognition, known by people in Milan, Italy to people in Des Moines, Iowa. He is simultaneously an artist whose work is safe and commercial but very edgy and provocative. He’s carved a niche into the art world that is high art with a rogue sensibility. Gary Baseman is an artist and personality that needs no explanation but needs a lot of explanation: he is a deeply fascinating character.
In early 2012, we met up with Gary to conduct a Featured Interview but ended up walking away with a lifetime’s worth of lush, rich material that would be cruel not to share. Gary welcomed us to his Mid-City home on a warm afternoon on his very palm treed, almost hyperbolically stereotypical Southern California street. His home is a quaint, old Spanish place filled to the brim with all of his work and collectibles that he has gathered over the past years.
Gary is from Los Angeles but he identifies strongly with the Fairfax area. “I grew up in the heart of Fairfax,” he begins, noting he lived shortly in Boyle Heights but can only remember that because he was told he lived there as a newborn. His parents were both Holocaust survivors from Poland, at the boundaries that today are within the Ukraine. They emigrated to America for safety, eventually calling the area surrounding what is The Grove now home.
“That was where I took my first steps, toward the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a beautiful Art Deco building that was destroyed in a fire in the late eighties. I was in New York at the time, but my best friend sent me photos,” he says mapping the area’s history and introducing us to this local history. “This was before the expanded LA Convention Center. The Pan Pacific Auditorium was where everyone had their conventions: the Auto Show, the Boat Show, and things like that.”
“I have all these weird memories,” he notes of the place, unsure if they are fact or fiction, “I remember things like either Leonard Nimoy or William Shatner singing at some auto or boat show, and I remember they would set up a little fake lake inside with real fish you could fish.”
“My brother used to work at the Gilmore Drive-In,” he says of another place also no longer standing in the Fairfax District. “I remember being like six or seven years old, getting into my pajamas and being in the back of the drive-in at the concession stand, bothering everyone for candy (and eventually getting kicked out). As a little kid, we’d drive by and I’d always look to see what was playing at the Gilmore, which was on 3rd Street where The Grove is now. Again, it was a beautiful Art Deco drive-in movie theatre. I’d always try to peek to see if an R-rated movie was playing, hoping to see a naked woman’s breast somehow. I do remember that I did see a clip from Everything You Needed To Know About Sex But Was Afraid To Ask, the Woody Allen film, with giant breasts greeting us while driving by.”
As you can tell, Gary is a unique breed of Angeleno that is a very small minority. He’s like a heritage Angeleno, someone who has seen the city change so much, recording it in his mind: it’s almost as if his reminiscences could start with the caveat “Back in my day…” leading him to detail the city’s history in such an involved manner. But, he hasn’t remained here for his entire life: for a ten year span from 1986 to 1996, he lived in New York City, getting his artistic start in magazines and creating ad campaigns.
Today, those New York-based publications have shifted a lot of their focus to the West, he sees. “Most New York magazines survive by writing about Hollywood. Even New York Magazine and New York Times: feels like forty percent of their stories are about Los Angeles now.”
As a Los Angeles native, he knows every side of the city and every type that the city attracts. After he did a quick interview of us, kindly and inquisitively asking about our backgrounds and our relationship to Los Angeles, he began to explain what people see when they first arrive here. “The things that sparkle the most are the worst possible people and the worst possible things in LA,” he states. “When you first see them, you’re thinking they’re shiny and exciting, but a lot of people are kind of transient and here for themselves.”
“Los Angeles is filled with the most amazingly talented people and places to go–but there’s also the glitz which is this shallow, no-substance world that some want to get involved in. They end up getting eaten up or humiliated and saddened because they don’t have the time to find those real places that make LA so great–those best designers, those artists, those photographers: everything is here. There happens to be an industry of people who think they can make it by winning the lottery, by having a reality show, or just calling themselves a producer. There are a lot of people with little talent that think you just have to go around looking good.”
We nod our heads like wise school children, echoing his thoughts in our smiles. “The world has changed so much in the past few years. We were in a crazy ‘depression,’” he continues, which he attributes to a shift in a type of artist in the city. “And, in that respect, how people are surviving is fascinating. Rather than people searching for work to get by, people have started surviving on savings, have moved back in with their parents or with friends, or have done something to survive day-to-day. It seems that people have found that if they can’t make money, they are going to not make money doing something they love instead of not making money doing something they don’t love.”
He also finds that this has manifested itself in young artists locally, too. He frequently needs help from local artists and is never at a loss for help. He explains that he currently has an intern from Art Center who he’s taken under his wing, which is something he seems to do with all his helpers. “People are always helping me with projects,” he explains. “Like Cali, my intern. I am helping her with her portfolio and getting her get a sense of what is out there in the real world as an artist. It’s not easy to find teachers in school who do one-on-one guidance like this.”
“And, when I do art performances, I have like one hundred volunteers–but I give them all a print to say thank you. It’s not like I’m making a crazy amount of money off of an art performance: I’m creating an environment and making an art event. I want to play with the interaction of the viewers, encouraging them to rethink things about themselves and environment that they are in.”
“All these things for me are a way of life,” he says. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to say that I’ve spent most of my life as an artist. Well, I had one year right out of college where I worked at an ad agency.”
For more on Gary, give him a follow on Twitter and a Like on Facebook. Gary also has a new show VISCOUS currently in Milan’s Antonio Colombo and will also be sharing work at Pictoplasma in Berlin on April 14. Gary will also be having BASEMANIA at MondoPop Gallery on April 14 and will be painting a wall in Rome on April 15.