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’s identity as an artist is something ingrained in him by his parents, who stressed that he could be whatever he wanted. As the only person in his family born in the United States, the idea of freedom and expression and being the self that you want to be is something very heavily instilled into his narrative.
“My parents were Holocaust survivors,” he explains, “Which meant they both watched their homes destroyed, they watched their parents killed, they lost their language, they lost all of their possessions–this is like serious insane crazy fucking shit stuff that probably didn’t even hit me that hard until I was an adult. They were displaced. My dad was a partisan, spending three and a half years in Poland, fighting the Nazis with these Russian paratroopers. They lost everything.”
“My dad met my mom in a Russian displacement camp and went back to their hometowns after the war,” he continued. “My mom’s cousin was murdered because he complained about how their possessions were stolen. They had to leave and came to America after spending some time in Canada.”
His family initially lived in Winnipeg for some time but made their way to Southern California, where his mother’s sister lived. He calls his parents “very simple people” who were incredibly strong and incredibly inspirational. “I’ve been honoring them in art and am working on toy figures that I’ve named after their towns. I’ve been researching about these little towns of three thousand, five thousand people. I was just reading on Wikipedia that my dad’s town had three thousand Jews, but now there are no Jews at all who live there. They killed them all, destroyed them, and put them all in a ghetto of three buildings, either killing them or putting them into slave labor.”
“Or, they escaped. That’s what my dad did,” he explained. “He spent the rest of the war fighting the Nazis with Russian paratroopers. At first, they wanted to get rid of him, but he didn’t leave. He told them that if they wanted him to leave, they would have to kill him because the Nazis would kill him otherwise. They found a commonality and a respect for him.”
“It’s crazy stuff. When I met him, he was an electrician,” Gary says with slight laugh. “I didn’t know my dad during that crazy time. I met him as this guy who owned a fourplex on Curson and Beverly. He was an electrician, and my mom worked at a bakery (at Canter’s), and they both had strong, crazy Yiddish accents. There I was growing up as this little American kid who got to go to Disneyland every year. That’s what I looked forward to.”
“They let me live with the ideal that I could do anything that I wanted to do,” he said. “Ever since I could remember, all I wanted to do was be an artist. At age six or seven, I knew I wanted to be an artist. Because I was the only one born in the United States, my dad told me every day that I could be president, I could be anything I wanted. It’s this idea of the American dream and spirit: it allowed me to have the freedom to draw perversity or my passion, or for me, try to live my life completely without any maliciousness.”
“In fact, I think my last few exhibitions have been about discovering one’s true self and breaking down these walls that society has created for us to act or be or live a certain way –so you can discover, accept, and love your true self. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone else, what the fuck? You should be able to do what you want. It’s taken decades or years for me to even have a certain acceptance of this now.”
“For me, my art is all about celebrating the bittersweetness of life,” Gary explains. “The acceptance of that allows me to live this life as an artist.” But, where did he get this start in art? As he said, it’s truly been there his entire life by way of one place in particular: Art Center, which he now finds has great teachers and pulls his interns from. However, he didn’t always see it as such a great place.
“As a little kid, I went to Third Street Elementary. And, right next door to Third Street Elementary, was Art Center,” he said. “I’d walk by Art Center every single day and students would be sitting under trees, drawing cars or pictures, and everything I saw was really clean and so airbrushed and so perfect. For me, that’s not what art was. Even as a little kid.” I was proudly known as an “Anti-Art Center” artist growing up.
“What I love in art are cartoons like Warner Brothers or Charlie Brown or Mad Magazine. That’s what I thought about as a kid. Even thinking about Picasso or the way I looked at art, it was not from Art Center. At a very young age, I knew I had to go to a real institution of learning. The closest thing for me in LA was UCLA. Art Center was just this lovely mansion that was so close to me that I thought it couldn’t be that special of a place. How could it be that special if its right next door to where I went to elementary school?”
Gary did in fact go on to UCLA where he studied communications. His experience of school was just “studying and having a girlfriend,” he said. He still had the artistic inclination but saw himself going to law school, which is seemingly out of a fear he had of showing his work. He ended up interning at the Federal Communications Commission in DC, defending the First Amendment and free speech…until he realized he would hate being an attorney.
Wanting the security of a company but something in the world of art, he pursued work in advertising. “I interned first at Chiat Day and then at Dailey and Associates,” he said. “After a year of working at Dailey, I realized I didn’t have an art portfolio and started putting it together. In that year, I was banned from the creative department. They even made me sign a form that said if they caught me drawing on the job they would fire me. Cliff Einstein was the creative director then and actually, to this day, has been very supportive of my work. But, back then, I couldn’t get into the creative department. My media boss loved me; but, in my spare time, I wanted to see what the creative department was doing at the agency.”
Gary eventually realized that he wanted to get into publishing and illustrating to use his talents. What he found out was that it was a job that required him to be in New York as that was where publishing was happening. “My first big job was the cover of the New York Times Book Review: I had the cover and the whole issue inside,” he said. “I got a spot illustrating for Time magazine. I started working for every big and little magazine I could. Any computer magazine, sports magazine–I didn’t care. I knew I could figure out a strong visual solution and I started doing it. I did that for a dozen years, doing twelve to twenty assignments a month along with campaigns for Gatorade and Nike and Celebrity Cruises–you name it.”
Gary’s illustration work in magazines got him a lot of attention and led to huge opportunities. Soon, Gary was wrangled into the entertainment world beyond just art: television and movies.
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.