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June 21, 2005

{     Interview : Gary Baseman     }    

By Lindsey Baker and Adam Barraclough
No single person has done more to help define, progress and legitimize the current movement towards accessible art than Gary Baseman. He has left his mark upon an amazing variety of mediums, from the Emmy Award winning Teacher's Pet animated series and subsequent feature film to commercial illustration for corporate heavies like Nike, Chili's and Mercedes-Benz. His 'Dumb Luck' designer vinyl toy (produced by Critterbox) has taken the collectible market by storm, selling out left and right, leading to several other toy concepts in development. Amidst all that, he's still made time for internationally staged solo and group gallery shows, contributed illustration work to Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Time magazines and compiled and released a 350+ page book showcasing his work. He also coined the term 'Pervasive Art' and has remained on the cutting edge of this movement, helping to foster it's growth and contextualize it within the contemporary art world. Oh, and he also made time for this interview.

Lindsey/Adam: You take a lot of pride in being able to stay true to the aesthetic and meaning of your work in any medium. With your art represented in so many areas, what type of audience do you finding showing up at your lectures these days?

Gary: Do you mean what kind of weirdos and kooks come to see me ramble at my lectures? What a way to start off an interview'. Well, let me first thank you for the nice compliment on my pride. It is important to me to create good work and to stay true to my aesthetic and message. At least, I try.

Who comes to my speaking engagements now? Pretty much anybody and everybody. When I used to concentrate mainly on illustration, I would get mostly graphic designers and art students. Today, it's musicians, stockbrokers, doctors, a few vampires... Mainly, those who enjoy my paintings or collect my urban vinyl. Some bring their children (who are fans of my animated series, Teacher's Pet) but I warn parents that during my talk there will be a lot of references and images that are inappropriate for young children. I guess I perform blue.

I remember seeing Matt Groening interviewed on Conan O'Brien years back, and he brought out all of the best generic Simpsons toys he's found over the years. They were hilarious, terribly deformed flea-market representations of his art, and I thought about how weird that must be to see your work that way. On one hand, it must be fascinating to see how contemporary culture has embraced your style, but hideous to have your creations disfigured for a knock-off profit.
It seems like your art is imitated in a less direct, but very similar way. Some imitation is flattery, but have you ever seen what you considered to be blatant plagiarism of your work, or something that bit your style so hard it crossed the line? How did it make you feel?

Usually, the most hilarious, terribly deformed flea-market representations of MY art are done by me. I am the best at bastardizing my own work.

But yes, it is so flattering to see people rip me off. If it is true plagiarism, then you handle things legally and sue the shit out of them. True plagiarism is the moral equivalent of rape. If they are just being derivative, it's less like rape and more like they are just copping a quick feel, so you just don't condone it, and move on. If I do see imitators, they are usually a few years behind me, copying something I did five years ago. The ones who rip you off immediately are your best friends who all steal from each other anyway. Or in other words, we all end up inspired by the same thing.

What was it like having a cadre of animators and illustrators working in what was essentially your style, to produce the Teacher's Pet projects?

We were one big happy dysfunctional family. I really enjoyed having an amazing crew of artists who worked on emulating my art style. The goal was not to have them just copy what I have done, but to be inspired by my work and create the best visual animated story based on the Baseman look. Our studio area at Disney was 'Gary-Baseman-land' with my art up everywhere. We had great artists like Kim Roberson, my character designer, and Seonna Hong, my background painter, who are now doing wonderful things as illustrators and painters in their own right.

I was very proud to have the Baseman signature next to the logo of "Teacher's Pet." Disney has never done that before.

I loved the unique visual representations of the states in the song Whole Bunch of World in Teacher's Pet, (especially the Baseman-looking Hatfields and McCoys for my home state of West Virginia.) It seems like you might be a bit of a US history buff. Were those your designs, or was that farmed-out Disney work?

My brilliant asshole of a director, Tim Bjorklund, is responsible for most of the visual gags in that song. I came up with a few, and the rest were from our great storyboard artists. Cheri Steinkellner, my Co-Executive Producer, has to get credit for writing that sardine-filled song. I did love American history as a little kid. I was nerdy enough to memorize all the presidents and other stupid trivia about them.

I've read that Disney had no trouble drawing the great vocal talent involved with the feature-length Teacher's Pet movie. In the featurette on the DVD a lot of the actors are all like "What's up with the guy who drew this?" Did you get to meet many of the folks behind the voices?

The featurette was pretty much a love letter to me. It was very nice. I was at all the major voice recordings for the Teacher's Pet film, so I pretty much met everyone. We did have an unbelievable cast to perform our character voices. Nathan Lane and Kelsey Grammer make it look so easy. And as much as I love the script, their acting made it so much better. David Ogden Stires, Jerry Stiller, Wallace Shawn, Debra Jo Rupp, Megan Mullaly, and Paul Reubens really brought life to our story.

Speaking of Paul Reubens' I was really happy to see Paul get some work with Teacher's Pet, I know things have been pretty tough for him. Were you a fan of his oft-maligned character Pee-Wee Herman?

Everyone loves Pee-Wee. Of course, I love Pee-Wee. You just reminded me that I owe Paul a little painting of Dennis the Mutant Alligator Boy that I promised him. Oops.

Considering the underlying themes in some of your artwork I think it's funny to imagine you slipping some subversive content into your film or television program. Disney projects have become notoriously associated with such subliminal slip-ups. (IE- The splash spelling out S-E-X in the Lion King, the phallic coral formations in The Little Mermaid, or the preacher popping a boner in Aladdin) Have you ever been tempted?

If I am creating something for children, I will not ever put in anything that is inappropriate. But with my own fine art, I'll put in subject matter that will offend everybody. I don't need to put hidden subversive images in a product for children. I put enough subversive images in my own painting. What I do like to do is have images that can be interpreted with double or triple meanings.

We recently spoke with David Horvath (of Uglydolls fame) about creating characters, toys and animated programs for children. He was also quick to point out that he felt there was a different level of responsibility involved when developing work specifically intended "for the shorties". You've expressed similar sentiments here and in the past regarding Teacher's Pet. As more and more people become aware of you and your work, how far does that line of responsibility extend into other projects?

In my painting and other personal projects, I have the responsibility to try to discover simple human truths and to be able to express them in my own way. I would only worry about how children would be impacted if they were the chosen audience for the images.

When David Horvath refers to 'shorties' is he referring to dwarves and midgets? I think that the dwarf and midget community find the term 'shorties' derogatory.

You have coined the phrase Pervasive Art to describe the movement towards accessibility and variety of medium that has swept up contemporary artists and designers this past decade or so. In fact, you're one of the first people to speak with real authority on this issue, as Pervasive Art has struggled to gain validity amongst traditional gallery-work and fine-art in general. It seems the gap is beginning to be bridged, and I'd like to thank you for being an active force for positive change. I'd also like to congratulate you, as your work is featured as a part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. and in the Museum of Modern Art in Rome. How do you feel Pervasive Art will be historically remembered and contextualized, and what do you see as the future of the movement?

I felt like I needed to step forward and come up with a term for what I am trying to create. Pervasive Art seems to fit very well. My goal is to blur the lines between fine art and commercial art.

I don't know how we will be remembered. I do know that we live in a time today in which all mediums are fair game to be used as tools to generate creative expression, and as artists we have the obligation to push that. Today, instant media is in our face at all times. Instant access. Instant gratification. T.V., film, internet, billboards, paintings, newspapers. Bam, bam, bam. It is time to smudge the lines of artistic delineation. Actually I don't care that much about categories as long as the art is good. I remember I was pissed at the MOMA Hi/Low Art show when they put a Warhol on the wall in a place of honor and a George Herriman cartoon on a table given the same level of importance as a detergent box. Now, I may be offending detergent box designers here, but my point is that the best art from any medium should be respected.

The way I see it, the top ten percent of all art in any category is generally brilliant. Then approximately the next twenty percent is good, and the rest is crap. The goal for me is to create cream in all mediums. Paintings, magazines, books, film, television, advertising, and commerce.

You've described the Hello From Los Angeles show in which you joined forces with Mark Ryden and Tim Biskup as being "like jazz". Where you trust each artist to improvise on the work." That experience seems to have had a large impact on you and your work- how vital is collaboration to you at this point in your career? Also, any chance of a stateside reprisal of that collaboration?

I know Mark, Tim, and I would love to reprise the collaboration. We just need to fit it in our schedules.

Collaboration has become more important to me since creating the television series. It has become a very important factor elsewhere too, especially with my urban vinyl figures. One has to work with others that one respects and trusts. I personally work closely with Conor Libby at Critterbox and trust him to create my figures in 3D. We use an amazing sculptor, Colin Batty, to interpret my paintings.

Many of my future goals require such collaboration.

Paul Frank has said that your work was the inspiration for his Julius character. How does it feel when another artist takes inspiration from you and runs with it?

Of course, I am honored that Paul has been inspired by my work. The Paul Frank Company has really inspired me in terms of how they consistently produce fun, well-made products.

I understand that you may be working on a gallery show with toy and plush designers Friends With You. The mere thought boggles the mind. What can you tell us about that collaboration?

The mere thought boggles my mind too. Sam and Tury are certifiable. They are really crazy but very talented. Their plush toys really blur the line between fine art and commerce. We are in the beginning stages, sending emails back and forth. We will see what fucked up craziness we come up with. You will be the first to know.

Is there a medium left that you haven't tackled in some form?

Yes. All of them, in a way. I always feel like I am starting from scratch. I have a lot of areas I want to explore with my paintings, and creating installations. I also want to produce some large public sculptures. I am in development on a more adult animated show for television and have many ideas for feature films.

I have been exceptionally impressed with the quality of the Baseman Dunces toys produced for Sony's Vanimal Zoo, and though I haven't seen the "Dumb Luck" figure in person, it seems to have been incredibly well-realized. How happy are you with your work thus far in the toy medium?

I was thrilled when I first saw my Dunce Series realized in 3D. I was very impressed with Sony Creative in Japan. We are hoping to recreate the same quality in the new large 12-inch dunces with Critterbox. In fact, we are doing something quite special with the packaging too. I really liked what we did with the first Dumb Luck figure, along with the new Japanese version and New York version and, of course, the retro white version.

Just wait for Hotchachacha, the God of Love, and Igneous to come out. I want to blow peoples minds. Hotchachacha is my little devil that steals halos from angels. God of Love is a multi-headed deity with an insatiable sexual appetite. Igneous is a fire-girl who contemplates suicide by sucking on a water pistol, distraught over an old flame.

Will we ever see a take-home toy or sculptural version of the "Happy Idiot"?

Right now, the Happy Idiot, my sacrificial snowman, was created as a very limited edition 27-inch ceramic sculpture. I did originally want to also produce a smaller clear plastic version for my gallery show, but there were not enough time. I am sure we will create a take home version in the near future.

You've also provided designs for Strange Co. and Super7 magazine's Neo-Kaiju project. This endeavor has a real transcendent feel, as the artists involved seem to have a true reverence and respect for this particular aspect of Japanese pop-culture. How did you become involved?

Well, Strange Co. and Super Seven were both very supportive in covering my solo New York gallery show, 'Happy Idiot and other paintings about Unattainable Beauty.' They then invited me to participate in Neo-Kaiju with Tim, Seonna, Todd and Kathy. It is as simple as that.

What role does mascot culture, whether Japanese or American, play in your work?

Iconic characters have always been important in my work. I have been a big fan of Bibendum, the Michelin man, and also Reddy Kilowatt, collecting old advertising figures for years. I also collect a lot of old toys, mainly from the 1930s and '40s.

In October, I was part of the Pictoplasma conference in Berlin, which was centered on the theme of 'Character.' There was an amazing group of painters, illustrators, taggers, toy makers, and designers who came together to participate in the event from all over the world, including Japan, Amsterdam, Paris, Miami, Hollywood, Argentina, and Australia.

Are you greatly inspired or informed by locale? You've frequently discussed the juxtaposition of New York attitude and California cool - how do these things affect what you do?

Well, I was born and bred in the heart of Los Angeles, growing up in the Fairfax district. But I did live in New York City for ten years. One cannot help but be inspired by the environment that one lives in. Ironically, I usually create work more about the environment I long for more than where I live. In Los Angeles, my work seems to be darker in theme, and in NY, my work gets over-saturated with color.

Right now, I believe Los Angeles is in the mist of a strong art renaissance led by painters like Mark Ryden, Clayton Brothers, Camille Rose Garcia, and Tim Biskup. (All friends and all amazing artists.)

You've managed to focus on some fairly consistent themes in your work throughout your career, while still keeping things fresh. What, in your personal and artistic life, are you passionate about, and what keeps the energy coming?

The simple human emotion of desire. My themes are generally pretty universal; 'desire,' 'control,' 'truth,' and 'mortality.' My energy comes from the belief that I must continue to grow and challenge the work I have just created.
Life is all about moving forward and taking risks. If I create work that is good, than I see myself as good. If I create something that is shit, then I feel like shit. It motivates me to keep going forward.

You've obviously worked very hard to get to where you are but you also consider luck to be a very important part of your success. How much of success simply comes down to dumb luck?

Do you want a mathematical formula of how much dumb luck plays in success?
S = HW x P x DL/BD x ND
Where S = Success, HW = Hard Work, P = Persistence, DL = Dumb Luck, BS = Bull Shit, ND = Natural Disasters.

What I try to tell students, is that you can't expect anyone to do it for you. And if you don't try, it will never happen. Also be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it. And then you will have to find something else to bitch about.

    » See more of Mr. Baseman's work at: GaryBaseman.com

Interview conducted by both Lindsey Baker and Adam Barraclough.

Comments

I just read that Kaws is also infatuated with the Michelin Man. Eerie.

Posted by: Jenn at February 4, 2005 8:32 PM

his art is so happy it makes me smile... than cry.. than smile again

Posted by: paul at February 15, 2005 7:11 AM

Great interview!!!..We love u Gary, you are the king and an invaluable source of inspiration.. It is a joy to see your works, please make a trip down to Australia and exhibit some of your work. Bring Tim Biskup with you.....I am in awe of you....Thankyou for sharing your brilliance.

Posted by: nick at October 22, 2005 1:30 PM

like your paintings

Posted by: maomao at January 24, 2006 11:30 AM

Being a NY art-snoot I'm still only getting used to the idea that you should ENJOY art.

Baseman's work is creepy on two levels: For one, it's creepy. For two, I actually enjoy it. Sometimes.

Posted by: Emory at March 23, 2006 3:51 PM

Dude... I am VERY picky with artists, but you are fucking awesome. No matter how much (most likely) conservative people may deny it, I firmly believe mostly everyone can recognize that exact vibe you set out and somehow, familiarize with it. It's fucking awesome dude...I just randomly picked up a Cypriot magazine in a waiting room somewhere and was dumbfounded that you had come HERE of all places, and was EXTREMELY pissed that I missed it. Anw...sorry for blabbering on and on. Keep it up!

Posted by: LiSrD at August 3, 2008 2:41 PM
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