On an evening like many others at Art Basel, the world famous art event held annually in Miami, The Webster Hotel in the heart of the Art Deco district hosted a preview presentation of the Spring/Summer 2017 menswear collaboration between artist Gary Baseman and the American fashion brand Coach. The shop inside the hotel was transformed into a universe of drawings and sketches by Baseman, with custom-made objects from his characters as the evil Buster Le Fauve and “wildbeast,” a comic rendition of the classic leopard. The installation concept developed from the artist’s long-standing partnership with Stuart Vevers, the Creative Director of the historic house, for whom Baseman has created exclusive prints and graphics playing on classic American iconography (remember the smiley face? For the Baseman/Coach collaboration it lique es while continuing to smile), whose symbols and themes distinguish the S/S 2017 men’s and women’s collection, injected with a bit of college and rockabilly avour. During the evening, the artist himself customized two leather biker jackets on-the-spot while explaining the origin of the collaboration.
A multifaceted artist, illustrator, designer and author of the famous Disney cartoon Teacher’s Pet, and winner of three Emmy Awards, Gary Baseman is considered one of the prominent gures of California’s Pop Surrealist scene, characterized by the fusion between art and pop culture. Mr. Baseman began his career in New York between the second half of the eighties and the first half of the nineties, as an illustrator for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Time, Atlantic Monthly and The Los Angeles Times. Back in California, Baseman dedicated himself to exploring di erent forms of hybridization between art, fashion, advertising, design, music and film, and has coined the term “Pervasive Art” to define his aesthetic, which blurs the line between Fine Art and Commercial Art. What are his influences? “When I think of my influences Darger comes to mind- the schizophrenic self-taught Chicago artist who died in 1973, who for over sixty years secretly created an illustrated manuscript over 15,000 pages long. He is a source of inspiration for many pop surrealists. Then there are many of the art world’s stars like Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Man Ray, Takashi Murakami. Early in my career I looked to Miguel Covarrubias, Charles Addams, Walt Disney and the artists of the old Warner Bros. cartoons. I also appreciate Maurizio Cattelan, Gregory Crewdson and Je Koons.”
Gary Baseman, however, is not only a painter, a versatile illustrator and creator of cartoons and toys. You can tell that right away; after an evening of talking about art and life around the artists’ district Wynwood, where I had the privilege of having his guided tour, I now believe he’s more of a guru or Lifecoach. Although his works have a dark vein, observing the outcome is one of contagious energy- even observing the most contrite faces or stylized skeletons, it’s hard not to smile. All the characters that populate his imagination are capable of impersonating a real state of mind or emotion, as if they were true prophets of the philosophical and existential being of the artist himself. His drawings, at times even gothic and macabre, are nothing but representations of the fears and emotional conflicts that we all live. Gary explains that each of his key characters have a name and the name is linked their meaning within his works. The first we speak about is Toby, a real puppet who travels with Gary around the world and shows up on his Instagram account. “Toby is always by my side, he takes selfies and photos with the interesting people I encounter during my wanderings. I created him in a very strange moment in my life when I was having a hard time trusting others. In fact, Toby has even been to Rome, where I took a photo of him in the Sistine Chapel, then tried over and over again to take the same picture in the Sistine Chapel. On the umpteenth shot, a guard came over and told me “no photos here!” I tried to stash away the camera but he made me delete every last photo. The power of the church is strong in Italy.” Speaking of power, let’s talk about that of women, who in Gary’s artistic style occupy an important place. In fact, Baseman fact loves being surrounded by girls in his paintings, transforming seemingly innocent stuffed animals into nude Venuses who interact with each other in a loving, passionate or violent way. “Women are the real heroines of my art, and have never treated them in a negative light. They are the heroines of my paintings, they are not portrayed as hateful nor as ideal objects of beauty. I’m doing a photography project about fashion, creating a series of doll costumes almost like aprons from the ‘50s that I used to dress my “Wild Girls” or girls with interesting faces that I notice on the street and become models for my shooting or muses for my next drawings. They are warriors like the “Vivian Girls” by Henry Darger. They fight evil. These may seem like dolls but all of my characters are dolls or puppets.”
If Toby is Baseman’s most famous character, then Dumb Luck, the smiling crippled rabbit with his amputated leg in hand, is the epitome of idiocy. Chouchou, instead, is a creature who absorbs negative energy around him and transforms it into a thick white cream that comes out of his navel, while HotChaChaCha is a little demon, who makes the angels impure, depriving them of their halo, while Ahwroo is a cat that becomes fierce and scratches everything when it doesn’t receive enough attention, inspired directly from Gary’s cat Blackie, the mutable character both disquieting and tender at the same time.. Baseman himself calls all of his characters, including those he designed for Coach, “the members of a secret society that guards our deepest desires, an imperfect and bitter sweet celebration of the beauty of life taking part in the eternal conflict between good and evil, between joy and pain, love and death in a kaleidoscope of colours that inspire a kind of lunatic-park. Their personality is different from that of other more famous people, they are a little bit misfits, but with real characteristics that people can relate to and which makes them smile. And for that we cannot help but love them.” Speaking of secret societies and secret, do you have one to tell me? “I’d like to think that if you come into contact with my characters- whether it be wearing a Coach T-shirt or watching one of my cartoons- I’m an open book, I have no secrets because they are all on the canvas or in the pages of my sketches. You just have to guess the code.”
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