Gary Baseman

Gary Baseman (b. 1960) is a contemporary artist who works in various creative fields, including illustration, fine art, toy design, and animation. He is the creator of the Emmy-winning ABC/Disney cartoon series, ‘Teacher’s Pet,’ and the artistic designer of ‘Cranium,’ a popular board game.

Baseman’s aesthetic combines iconic pop art images, pre- and post-war vintage motifs, cross-cultural mythology and literary and psychological archetypes. He is noted for his playful, devious and cleverly named creatures, which recur throughout his body of work. Baseman’s art is frequently associated with the lowbrow pop movement, also known as pop surrealism.

Baseman was born and raised in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. He is the fourth child of Holocaust survivors from Ukraine. Baseman’s mother worked at the famous Canter’s Deli and his father was an electrician. Baseman cites Warner Bros. cartoons, ‘MAD Magazine,’ and Disneyland as early sources of inspiration. In junior high, Baseman met Barry Smolin, who is now a radio host and musician, and Seth Kurland, a writer and TV producer. The trio remain close friends.

While Baseman is a figure in the Los Angeles art world, he is also situated within an international cultural movement that includes both mainstream and underground artists. Baseman cites Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami, and the illustrator William Joyce as contemporaries. Baseman coined the term ‘pervasive art’ as an alternative to the lowbrow art label. Baseman uses the term didactically to describe a broad shift in his and others’ work to more visible avenues of art-making. He has stated that his goal is to ‘blur the lines between fine art and commercial art.’ According to Baseman, pervasive art can take any medium, and need not be ‘limited to one world, whether [that] is the gallery world, editorial world, or art toy world.’

Today, artists whom Baseman might refer to as pervasive are part of a larger movement with a recognizable ‘pop’ sense, but not necessarily a shared artistic mission. However, by virtue of where these artists are shown and in what ways they garner public attention, it can be said that all pervasive artists in some way play with the boundaries between high and low art. Among artistic peers, critics, and Baseman followers, pervasive art refers to an aesthetic that was, until recently, limited to the mediums of album art, comic books, cartoons, graffiti, and specialty galleries. Now, pervasive art is largely realized in multiple mediums and across a range of industries, from fashion design, advertising and graphic design, to toy design, film, music collaboratives, and music videos.

Cult-status street artists like Banksy, new wave comics illustrators like Gary Panter, Japanese pop artists, post-punk and hip hop artists, and iconic graphic artists like Shepard Fairey all contribute to a highly visible aesthetic that is virtually ubiquitous in contemporary culture. Baseman himself exemplifies pervasive art in that he works commercially and also remains an independent artist. While he creates products that are sold to a mass market, he also shows in museums and galleries, selling original artworks to collectors. Baseman employs traditional art practices such as painting, printmaking, sculpture, drawing, and collage. For Baseman, being a pervasive artist means staying true to a particular message and aesthetic no matter the medium employed.

From 1986 – 1996, Baseman worked as an illustrator in New York. Baseman refers to his illustration work, and to his general process, as message-making. His drawings have been published in ‘The New Yorker,’ ‘The Atlantic Monthly,’ and ‘Rolling Stone.’ He has had major independent and corporate clients such as AT&T Corporation, Gatorade, Nike, Inc., and Mercedes-Benz. One of Baseman’s most lauded endeavors in illustration is the best-selling board game ‘Cranium.’ After ten years in New York, Baseman returned to Los Angeles to explore opportunities in art and entertainment.

In 1999, Baseman exhibited ‘Dumb Luck and Other Paintings About Lack of Control’ at the Mendenhall Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition established Baseman’s transition from illustration to fine art, during a time when many of his artist-friends, like Mark Ryden, the Clayton Brothers, and Eric White made similar moves. Since then, Baseman has shown in close to twenty independent exhibitions, notably, ‘Happy Idiot and Other Paintings About Vulnerability’ at the Earl McGrath Gallery in New York City.

Baseman has translated many of his characters into toys and figurines, clothing, handbags, and other accessories. Prominent characters include Toby, the ‘best friend and the keeper of your dirty lil’ secrets;’ Hotchachacha, ‘the little devil who steals haloes’; and ChouChou, who ‘dispels hate and fear, and oozes Creamy Gooey Love.’ For toy, figurine, and limited edition projects, Baseman has collaborated with Critterbox, Double Punch, Toy2R, and Kidrobot. Fashion collaborations include Swatch, Hobbs & Kent, Harvey’s, Poketo, and Frau Blau. He has also designed the characters for the Cranium board game series.

In 1998, Baseman created the Disney animated series ‘Teacher’s Pet,’ about a dog who dresses as a boy because he wants to go to school. Baseman claims the character Spot was based on his dog at the time, Hubcaps. The series aired on ABC from 2000–2002, and the feature film of the same title came out in 2004. The cartoon included the voice talents of Nathan Lane, Debra Jo Rupp, Jerry Stiller, and Wallace Shawn. The film featured Kelsey Grammer, Paul Reubens, and Estelle Harris. Baseman won the Outstanding Individual in Animation Emmy for Production Design.

In 2009, Baseman added performance art to his oeuvre with ‘La Noche de la Fusión,’ a mythical holiday festival. Over two thousand attendees celebrated a melding of cultural practices and ideas. Along with games, live music, and dancers, the event featured live models in costume playing Baseman’s female characters Skeleton Girl, Hickey Bat Girl, Bubble Girl, and Butterfly Girl. Displayed at the exhibition was the Enlightened Chou, a new character inspired by Baseman’s international travels.

In 2010, Baseman presented ‘Giggle and Pop!’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Live action costumed ChouChous played in the La Brea Tar Pits along with models dressed as Baseman’s Wild Girls, who were renamed ‘Tar Pit Girls’ for the occasion. The characters performed a dance choreographed by Sarah Elgart, and the audience joined in with singer-songwriter Carina Round, who performed a song she composed for the event.

In 2011, Baseman had his debut live performance with the independent music band Nightmare and the Cat, featuring Sam and Django Stewart and Claire Acey, at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. Dubbed the ‘art jockey’ for the band, Baseman paints on paper, canvas, or even on the lead singer Django Stewart, while the band plays. In March of that year, in conjunction with the opening weekend of his solo art exhibition, ‘Walking through Walls,’ Baseman performed with the band in New York at the Hudson Hotel, Lit Lounge, and the Ace Hotel.

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