Gary Baseman’s Master Plan

 Gary Baseman wants to conquer the planet.

But he won’t do it with nuclear weapons or political extremism. No death rays or mutant viruses, either.

When Baseman takes control, it will be with big-eyed weirdos like Toby (a fez-wearing mash-up of Mickey Mouse and a bowling pin), Hotchacha (a rotund little devil) and Marilyn (an all-purpose name for assorted apple-cheeked kewpie dolls).

Baseman uses his characters in paintings, in drawings and as models for vinyl toys. He makes ceramic sculptures, books, posters and limited-edition prints.

Give him a Sharpie and he’ll even sketch on a cocktail napkin if you ask nicely.

“Since I was 9, all I ever wanted to do was be the greatest artist in the world,” he said.

Baseman’s exhibit at Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville shows that age and experience have done little to mellow that mission.

“Bedtime for Toby” is a fun-house explosion of the artist’s imagination. Doodles in gilded frames, cartoon canvases and tiny characters have overthrown the white walls and dull concrete floor of the space.

I talked with Gary in the middle of the gallery while the show went up around us. Workers unpacked boxes of peg-legged rabbit dolls. In the corner, a ring of tiny stuffed Tobys circled two larger Tobys. It felt like I’d been invited inside one of Baseman’s vivid hallucinations.

Central Virginia seems like an odd place for the Los Angeles-based artist to land, considering his recent solo shows have been in New York, Taiwan, Rome and Barcelona (his next stop is Minnesota).

But it makes sense if you consider that Baseman is the progenitor of a movement he calls “pervasive art.”

It makes sense if you consider that Baseman won three Emmys for creating and executive-producing the animated series “Teacher’s Pet.” Or if you know that he’s done New Yorker covers and Target ads, illustrated children’s books and designed the entire line of Cranium games.

It makes sense because Baseman is a man in perpetual motion, a one-man image factory bent on filling the world with his doe-eyed inner demons.

And once you realize that, the question isn’t so much “Why Charlottesville?” but “Why not?”

“Pervasive art is everywhere,” Baseman said. “My goal is to break down boundaries. I want to blur the line between fine art and commerce.”

The willingness to take his art everywhere and anywhere is Baseman’s secret weapon.

Last year’s “Teacher’s Pet” movie was a hit with critics and kindergartners. His vaguely disturbing paintings earn praise from both the lowbrow and highbrow crowds. And his foray into limited-edition toys has made him a favorite with underground collectors.

As a result, Baseman’s fans run the gamut from his 4-year-old nephew to curators of international museums.

“I want to communicate and have a conversation that is understood by a mass audience,” Baseman said. “I want to blanket all the media in every way. I want to take over everything.”

Don’t get the wrong idea here.

Sure, Baseman said those things with arched eyebrows and an impish grin. And it’s true that his inspirations are Andy Warhol, Walt Disney and Ralph Lauren. But the guy is no conniving capitalist.

After all, there are easier ways to make money than by painting happy worms, naked women and squirrels.

In person, Baseman seems like a constant conduit for his imaginary world. He is never without his sketchbook. His hands are always moving.

While Baseman’s work has the inviting sheen of a Saturday morning cartoon, the artist takes every opportunity to evoke a more visceral reaction from his viewers.

Characters in his iconic dream world deal with sacrifice and longing, desire, mortality and self-loathing. There is sensuality, blood and violence. All the while, his paintings, drawings and sculptures stare back at us with enormous eyes, clown faces and the occasional trickle of drool.

The images are simple. The colors are bright. And because we approach them as cartoons, we’re that much more surprised when they leave us unsettled and giddy.

“How people act and react to each other has changed, especially in the last decade,” Baseman said. “The way we communicate with art should be different, too.”

If he gets his way, we’ll be challenged by images at every turn. Pervasive art will slink off the gallery walls and onto cereal boxes, coffee mugs, T-shirts and pillowcases. And the faster Baseman works, the quicker he’ll take over the world.

Of course, we could try to stop him. But once you lay your eyes on the 4-foot plush Toby in the center of the gallery, you’ll realize it’s already too late.

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 25, 2005

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