Gary Baseman: "Walking Through Walls"

Artist Gary Baseman has a show opening up at Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York City this weekend. In this post, a preview of some of the works featured in the exhibition, and a statement by the artist.


In "Walking through Walls," Baseman explores the concept of breaking through imposed limitations and boundaries, in art and life. Over 40 artworks address the notions of truth and death, the influences of childhood, memory, and identity. Compared to his past bright and frolicsome painting series, this exhibition of new art has a darker expressive palette. Baseman loosens up his painting style and also experiments with silkscreen and photography. Inspiration for Baseman comes from all directions: his personal collection of vintage photographs of people in masks and costumes; Jewish folktales; and the loss of his father.

As Baseman states, "'Walking through Walls' personally allows me to bring together the objective truths of childhood with the subjective beliefs of adulthood, while facing the absolutes of mortality."

Opening reception: Saturday, March 5, 6-8pm; Jonathan LeVine Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, 9E, NYC 10011. The show closes April 2, 2011.

(portrait of the artist by Sean Bonner)

"Walking through Walls" by Gary Baseman

March 5 – April 2, 2011
Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York

I have thought for a long time about the notion of being able to "walk through walls," moving through the different divisions of society, challenging expectations, and finding freedom. Although created to give us all a sense of order, walls are often, at least to me, impediments to living fully. In art, too, there are boundaries. Throughout my career as an artist, I have heard others tell me what I could and could not do, but my need to experiment creatively made me cross a lot of confining lines. Demonstrating the term I coined, Pervasive Art, I work in any possible medium that I feel is appropriate for my art.

For my last major exhibition in 2009, "La Noche de la Fusión," I created a mythical holiday – when the restrictive walls of society that dictate how we should live, dress, or behave, melt away in order for all of us to discover, accept, and love our "True Selves." In this current exhibition, "Walking through Walls," I go beyond something celebratory to something more reflective and sometimes solemn. I created a new iconic character, Lil Miss Boo, who is a little girl in a homemade ghost costume. I wanted to use her rather than a "real" ghost, to emphasize the true absurdity of trying to physically walk through walls.

A few years ago, I decided that I personally wanted to live my life by walking through walls. I did not want to be held back anymore by societal restraints or by my own anxiety about accomplishing my dreams. I imagined myself as a magical, charming individual who could convince anyone that I could do whatever I wanted, and go wherever I pleased. I wanted to be like my father, a Holocaust survivor, who was able to charm guards and move through work camps and other checkpoints to find food for family and friends, and who spent three years in the woods with Russian Paratroopers. I created this meta-level overlapping my own made up world with the empirical world, where I could move easily through both, not having to adhere to rules or boundaries. Examples of this meta-world are present in my 2007 exhibitions "I Melt in Your Presence" and "Hide and Seek in the Forest of ChouChous," where I began to use nostalgic-looking little girls, and created these little creatures called ChouChous who take away their fears and insecurities.

The Lil Miss Boo character, whom I also call Muertita or La Petite Mort, which means "little death" in both Spanish and French, respectively, is actually based on a real girl in a photograph, from my collection of about 2000 original vintage photographs of people in masks and costumes. So, Lil Miss Boo is actually my very first non-fiction character. Although non-professional photographers mostly took these photos, to me these are true works of art. For nearly 20 years I have collected and have been inspired by these photographs, but this is the first time I have used elements from the photos in an exhibition. I have used found photography in the past as ephemera that I would paint on, but the mask photos have always been too precious to me to alter physically. So, to finally find a way to incorporate these into my art is a breakthrough.

Creatively, I wanted to walk through walls by exploring the use of collage and silkscreen in my paintings. I chose a few inspiring figures from my photo collection: the little ghost girl (Lil Miss Boo), a skeleton boy, and a black cat. I have used similar characters in my past work, but this is the first time that they are taken directly from the photographs. I wanted to juxtapose their images with my own painted characters. I also wanted to paint in a fashion similar to how I draw, rawer and less forced than how I feel about some of my past illustrative works. I painted my own graphic pattern of flowers, reminiscent of wallpaper from the 50s and 60s, to represent the physical manifestation of "the wall." I wanted to use this pattern to collage onto other paintings, be used as background, or be a character element in its own right. I also wanted to introduce my own photography in this exhibition, discovering the power of this medium within this body of work. The importance of physically shooting a real ghost girl, or an installation of dolls in ghost girl costumes, adds a different dimension into this new character.

Lil Miss Boo, besides being the main icon in this exhibition, represents "the keeper of our childhood memories." She resembles my Magi spirits that I have used in the past, who generally are the keepers of all our memories. The photographs, which date back to the early 20th century to the 1960s, remind me of my own earlier beliefs about truth, love, God, responsibility, hope, and fate. As a child, I believed all of these in the most absolute objective forms, so everything became the "Absolute Objective Truth, the Absolute Objective Love," etc. These beliefs were the foundation of who I was all the way through college. Becoming an adult, I slowly lost these absolute beliefs to understand a more mature subjective form of all of these.

"Walking through Walls" led me to exploring the loss of childhood and naiveté. I have felt the years and years worth of scar tissue that has encompassed me as an adult, but I know that I have been able to walk through the scar tissue to move back to my simpler self. When I was nine years old, I created my first illustrated story called "Gary and the Monsters," which reveals how while growing up I related more to the monsters than my fellow humans. The story is about a little boy whose place of retreat was a laboratory, where he created his friend Frankinsing (because he sang a lot). The two have their triumphs and challenges, and almost lose each other, but in the end are both transformed into newer, better forms of themselves even as they remain monsters. From early on, I appreciated the imperfections that all of us have.

In this body of work, I use Hebrew, and bit of Spanish. The two words that apply most significantly to this series are emet and met, Hebrew words that mean "truth" and "death." In Jewish folklore there is the golem, a Frankenstein-like creature made of mud. He is activated by writing emet on his head, and then performs whatever tasks he is told. (I can compare my earlier self to golem, always doing what I was supposed to do.) To deactivate golem, the first letter aleph is removed, leaving only met. I reference this tale, but less in terms of monsters; I mean to speak more to the notions of truth and death.

The ghost character represents mortality. Last year my father passed away, which has affected me more deeply than I thought it would. I loved my father, but we were never that close, as he was much older than other fathers, so much so that many would mistake him as my grandfather. He was always there for me, but wasn't my confidant. He lived a good long life till the age of 93, but his death broke me down. It forced me to really look at the limitations of life. It also reminded me how important it is to live life to its fullest. And I guess, as with the passing of my favorite cousin who died way too young years ago, encouraged me to make tough life decisions.

Throughout this series, there are remnants of my artistic and personal past, as there is experimentation with new ideas. I have memorialized both real and imagined people in many of the works. Overall, the sense of deep loss has affected my artistic palette in a very "gray" way. Gray is the color in this new body of work. The bright palette of my earlier exhibitions is gone as I explore the murky themes in this series. While I invite all viewers of my artwork to come up with their own interpretations, "Walking through Walls" allows me to bring together the objective truths of childhood with the subjective beliefs of adulthood, while facing the absolutes of mortality.

Gary Baseman: