Gary Baseman is one of the nicest people on the planet. He seems to be perpetually happy and is the kind of person who cares deeply about everyone he meets. It isn’t an act, too: Gary is completely genuine with his extreme positivity. We learned this first hand from when we conducted our Featured Interview with him last year. The process usually only takes an hour–at the maximum–but Gary’s took nearly three hours as he had so much to say, wanted to know everything about us, wanted to show us all of his work, and even wanted to treat us to lunch. Gary has one of the biggest hearts in Los Angeles.
He has a very rich history, too. He’s a Fairfax District kid born to two Holocaust survivors who encouraged Gary to do whatever he wanted–and who have a large influence on his work. His work is currently the focus of a huge, brilliant examination of his life and art that is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center. The show is titled The Door Is Always Open and literally sees Gary open the door to his childhood home to allow you get to know his family, his art, his characters, and see everything that makes Gary Baseman Gary Baseman.
The show is a series of seven rooms that are made to look like his house. This sounds absurd but it isn’t: it truly looks like his house. Although we never saw his childhood home, we are certain it is a combination of where he grew up, where he lives now, and a dream home where the walls are covered with Chou Chou wallpaper. Each room has a theme too and is dedicated to an aspect that makes Gary. From the celebratory dining room to his playful den, they all represent key roles in his life. For example, the study: this room stands as a metaphor for Gary’s researching and literal study he had to dedicate to climbing his family (Birch) tree and trying to piece together his family history. From visiting his parents’ home town in Europe (which they left in order to escape from the Nazis) to studying a book of stories the survivors of the town penned, the room explains his personal history and points to how this informs his work. This all comes together in the room through a large painting of his characters and portraits of his family wandering through the Birch tree forest that Gary’s father sought cover in from the Nazis.
The Door Is Always Open is also a rich retrospective for the artist. Drawings made in his childhood to the many, many, many editorial illustrations he did to his Cranium and Teacher’s Pet are on view and you get to see the origination of his style and his characters. It’s a very full show that never overwhelms you and always speaks back to you, asking you to sit on a couch or play a game. It begs you to laugh and explore and is so well executed that you will forget that you are in a museum. That is just how Gary is. His work is incredibly escapist and pleasureful and, with the help of three all star curators and everyone at the Skirball, the show achieves something very few shows have ever achieved: it is Gary’s dream show brought to life. (Note: There is a great irony in the show since it is very family friendly–but you can certainly find the hysterical sexual undertones throughout the show.)
The opening–his House Party–was equally as dreamy. The museum was filled with his characters wandering around and playing with visitors, all of whom were activating the art space within the pale pink (museum) home. His figures helped to guide and engage the audience and–as the title suggests–showed that the door to Gary’s home is always open. Gary did his best to speak with as many guests as possible and, if you spoke with him, he gave you a key: a little Toby topped key to his home so you could (metaphorically) visit him any time you wanted.
Additionally, the Skirball went to great lengths to Gary-fy the museum. There were Gary themed carnival games, stations for people to make art, drinks made in honor of his parents, Gary’s band Nightmare And The Cat performed, and Shepard Fairey even DJ’d a bit as DJ Diabetic. Fairey’s inclusion was particularly special as he and Gary teamed up to make a special print to honor Gary’s father. They’re selling for $70 and are in an edition of four hundred. The Skirball only had 150 last night and we can guarantee that they all sold since the line went all the way out of the gift shop and into the lobby and stayed that way for hours.
Gary Baseman’s The Door Is Always Open is undoubtedly going to top many best art shows in Los Angeles for 2013. However, it will be remembered for having so much heart and for the stories that are told through the paintings and pictures and complete Gary-fication of the Skirball. Gary mentioned at the opening that it is upon him to share these stories of his family and the people from their town who survived the Holocaust. He certainly accomplished that goal and then went above and way beyond all expectations. Gary’s home at the Skirball is one that you absolutely must visit.
Gary Baseman’s The Door Is Always Open will be on view through August 18 and includes lots and lots of great programming around the show. You can get more details on it here.