Gary Baseman and The Jewish Home “The Door Is Always Open”

May 5, 2013 3:52 am 1 comment

This weekend, a retrospective of the works of Gary Baseman titled The Door Is Always Open, opened, at the Skirball Cultural Center. ‘Door’ recreates the artists’ childhood home filled with famous Baseman characters and Jewish subjects peppered about.

2

Gary Baseman’s characters seated at a Shabbat Table.

Baseman has had a long and successful career with iconic characters and big clients to fill his CV, but recent works are the first time he is dealing directly with his Jewish identity and the value that it holds for him now. This exhibition represents a major step in the artist coming to terms with his past and the many travels that he has taken exploring his art and identity.

His work uses cute characters typical of animation to discuss serious issues. The paintings are imaginative and representational, with renderings of characters that look like they came straight out of a stuffed animal collection, except with an adult seriousness and more bodily fluids. Baseman’s work is indicative of the West Coast art scene identified as Pop-Surrealism or Lowbrow Art. This Los Angeles stylistic homecoming marks an appropriate meta commentary on the work’s themes.

Baseman_Emet_by-IsaacB2.JPG

Diverging into editorializing, upon hearing about the exhibition without seeing any of the works, I was skeptical that there would be an obvious showing of Jewish identity in the art. We have previously posted works that Baseman created with Jewish themes, but I was doubtful that there would be enough of an emphasis on Jewish practice and identity in his life today that would be so apparent as to emerge this strongly.

Many Jewish Museums celebrate famous artists who “happen to be Jewish” and have fond memories of growing up in a Jewish household. However, the connection to their heritage in the work itself is many times a stretch of the imagination. If this model is used to set an example of what is “Jewish art” then we may have already lost a battle for authentic expressions of tradition through art. We already have a plethora of famous artists of Jewish descent who don’t have any day-to-day experiences that cause them to interpret the world within a Jewish context. What’s more, many young artists growing up today in secular American society have less and less “Jewishness” permeating their households, so even that tenuous connection is disappearing.

With all this preloaded skepticism, it was a breath of fresh air to be proven wrong about the Baseman show. What convinced me that there was an acknowledgement of authentic Jewish practice (going beyond gefilte fish in the exhibition) came when I found out there was a mezuzah hanging in the “house”. Naturally it was of the artist’s own design. And true to practice, it was dedicated at the opening of the show to serve as a sign on the doorway for all who enter. This is a Jewish home. A sacred space. To see so many people participating in this ritual, to be engaging with Jewish tradition in this way, was a true spectacle.

Baseman_mezuzah_by-IsaacB2.JPG

Brynjegard-Bialik. Photo: Isaac.

The use of Jewish symbolism, drawing from the Golem, and even the forest settings, are drawing from the lessons and histories passed down by Baseman’s parents, who sought salvation in their escape from Europe and new life in the land of opportunity. In a review by Tom Teicholz for the Jewish Journal, Baseman describes a passionate trip to Europe to connect the story of his parents, a personal art project he conducted where he nailed framed images of his grandfather to trees in the cemetery where his grave should be. Then Baseman adorned a costume of his own creation, “a giant magi with a cone-like head with one giant all-seeing eye, and wearing an apron with the Hebrew word for truth, emet, printed across his chest.” The photographs of Baseman dressed up in these environments was meant to “let people know there and everywhere that you can’t hide the truth,” he said, and to remind them “that [there are] souls there.”

Baseman_TruthAndDeath_by-IsaacB2

Jewish artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik was inspired by seeing Baseman’s Jewishly inspired work on exhibit, filled with Hebrew letters, ritual objects, and traditional Jewish foods, alongside photos of him at his Bar Mitzvah and with his family for Passover seders. It is rare for an established contemporary artist to spring into a Jewish phase of their work. Most Jewish artists who work with religious themes from their early careers on get pigeon-holed and largely ignored by the art world at large. Is this perhaps a path to follow for a later career turn towards tradition? Or the opening up of acceptance thanks to this artist’s own renown?

Baseman’s inventive way of evoking his family’s past, and finding his own place in Judaism in the present, hopefully will spark other artists to express themselves by bringing their own culture and history to their work. Perhaps The Door Is Always Open will open doors for other artists on their own paths to expression.

“Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Aug. 18. For more information, visit here.

Baseman_Shabbat-Table_by-IsaacB2

1 Comment

  • Putting a religious symbol into a work of art does not necessarily imply the religiosity of an artist.. Besides, who cares what religion – if any – ANY artist practices? It’s about as important as how many times this guy eats a peanut butter sandwich!!

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.