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Interview with Gary Baseman

Gary Baseman got his start in the art world as a commercial illustrator in New York, where he drew for the very best publications and corporations. His work for Hasbro’s Cranium is notable; Hasbro still manufactures the game using Gary’s illustrations and it’s rare to find one person in this world that has not ever played Cranium. As you may already know, Gary has since made many contributions to the vinyl figures world, considered limited edition art pieces rather than toys, they are prized among collectors around the world.

Gary eventually moved to Los Angeles to court the entertainment industry. Disney picked up his animated series, Teacher’s Pet, about a dog who dresses up like a boy and attends school, which went on to win 3 Emmy’s and a BAFTA.

These days, Gary continues to pervade popular culture and exhibit his art worldwide, with each show becoming more outlandish and spectacular than the rest. Read: semi-nude girls, performance art pieces, and giant sculptures. Below, Gary talks process, inspiration, and aspiration.

The three wallet designs for Poketo are from paintings from your exhibits, La Noche de la Fusion, and Hide & Seek. Could you tell us briefly the story behind each of them?

A lot of people ask if my paintings have stories to them, and sometimes they do, or sometimes I don’t know until years later. The images used on the POKETO wallets are glimpses into my many imagined worlds, but these are images with stories that continue to percolate in my brain. I think if anything, I’m trying to convey a certain mood. I want viewers to be drawn to and curious about the images, but I don’t want to tell them exactly what to think or feel.

“Hide and Seek in the Forest of ChouChou” was a series I made in 2007 for my solo show in Los Angeles at Billy Shire Fine Arts. It related to another show I did the same year in San Francisco called “I Melt in Your Presence.” Both shows introduced my world of ChouChous and the Wild Girls, a land where there’s chaos and evil, but also forgiveness and love.

Could you tell our readers about the recurring characters in your paintings?

The narrative goes that ChouChou is a special creature who takes away negative energy and hate from the Girls, absorbs it, and then oozes Creamy Gooey Love. ChouChou is a healer of sorts, and continues to be a prominent character in my work. “La Noche de la Fusión” in 2009 also featured ChouChou, but one in particular who became the Enlightened Chou. If you want to know more about this guy, you’ll have to visit his shrine at the Pico House in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, on view October 29 till November 28.

Who and what are your inspirations and influences? How do you process these influences and turn them into your own?

The human condition is what inspires me. We all go through life with rich emotional experiences, some beautiful while others are deeply painful. Whether it’s love and lust or fear and anxiety, these can manifest in my art into different worlds and characters. As a kid, I saw these same things addressed in Warner Brothers cartoons or even MAD magazine. Different clever animals would talk and in many ways were more upfront and honest about what they were going through, or what they wanted

How did your years of doing commercial illustration inform how you convey a message? Was it a natural transition from illustration to art?

I did illustration seriously for years, especially the decade that I lived in New York. I would churn out editorial work for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone. I did other major corporate campaigns for Carnival Cruises, AT & T, Nike. Illustration is about message-making, getting a point across quickly, and I learned a lot of that at UCLA where I majored in Communications. My switch to fine art started out more about producing work with my own messages, not ones for a client. Now that it’s been a little while since the switch, I can see that my experimentation in painting, like illustration, is still about strong, iconic images, but maybe ones that elicit more attention and wonder. I want people to get lost in my landscapes and be curious about my characters.

Would you share with us the lowest point and the highest point of your career?

I’m not sure what the lowest point of my career was, because even if I’ve failed, I still learned from the experience and grew from it. I work hard, but I’m not a perfectionist. It’s hard to isolate low and high, especially because I think of myself going through different eras, reinventing myself every few years.

I coined the word “pervasive art” to describe what I do, but also what so many other contemporary artists do in terms of creating art in many mediums for different purposes. The most successful artists are those who can create their own style and stand out and be effective in whatever medium. I don’t really like some of the terms that others have put my art under, because I feel I constantly change, so I never fit neatly into just one category. I’m easily distracted and love trying new things.

My more recent high points have been in live performance, bringing my characters to life and witnessing people play and dance. It’s a different energy, and it’s active rather than passive. You get people to react and participate. I think my characters allow people to let go, to lose their inhibitions and feel free to play.

My most recent event was “Giggle and Pop!” in June where the ChouChou and the Tar Pit Girls sang, danced, played with people roaming through the La Brea Tar Pits and the LA County Museum of Art. Some came for the event, while others were surprised. Last year’s “La Noche de la Fusión” was a more festive example of live performance where even more of my characters came to life. Attendees danced to live drums with Brazilian samba dancers, played games and won prizes, enjoyed popcorn and ice cream. I’m interested in how people experience art, not just look at it, or not just sort of see it at some crowded opening.

What do you think of the phrase “artist as brand”? Would you say that this describes “Gary Baseman”?

“Artist as brand” works for some artists, but not all. I know a lot of artists who would hate being considered a brand, thinking it would undermine their art and what it means. Sometimes a brand is name only, or worse, more important or known than the art (or thing) itself. I suppose artist as brand could make one more collectible or marketable, but being a brand doesn’t equal success or importance over time. Gary Baseman is a brand, but it’s because I’ve created a long line of work for over 25 years that crosses popular culture, games, toys, publications, fine art, etc. For me, it’s about integrity in the work. It’s not just a name.

You always carry a sketchbook with you, and when we visited your studio we saw that you had shelves full of archived sketchbooks. What are the various ways in which you utilize them? Are you going to publish your sketchbooks some day?

My sketchbooks are used in a lot of ways. They record my trips around the world, my ideas for new paintings, drawings from other artist-friends, or ephemera like ticket stubs, invitations, napkins. If I didn’t carry a sketchbook, I think I’d forget a lot of what I’ve done or felt or thought. If I have an idea in the middle of the night, I get up and write it in my sketchbook immediately. For the 13 years that I’ve been back in Los Angeles, I’ve finished 50 sketchbooks. I like being able to see the birth and development of ideas or characters over the years. I’d like to see my sketchbooks published someday, but I’d need an army to help me make that happen.

What are some big projects in store for 2011? What areas, familiar or unfamiliar, do you see yourself moving into?

In 2011 I have a solo show in New York at Jonathan LeVine Gallery. I may also have a fashion design show in Israel and another art show in Taiwan.

To answer your question about what areas I see myself moving into, I feel I’ve been in many and now just want to continue exploring within these same areas and more. I see more fashion and performance work, maybe some video and other more experimental work.

See all of Poketo x Gary Baseman wallets.
More of Gary’s work at

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