Gary Baseman’s childhood was built on a dichotomy. Growing up in sunny California, he was exposed to “Disneyland, the Dodgers and McDonald’s,” he says, but his parents were Eastern European Holocaust survivors who tried to shield their offspring from their own pain. As an artist, Baseman has explored both the pop and the macabre through a body of work that he describes as “pervasive,” replete with paintings, editorial illustrations, art performances, vinyl toys, TV animation and board games. His retrospective, “The Door Is Always Open,” at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center opens April 25, and the accompanying book, published by Rizzoli, is available now. Here, he speaks to TIME.
Can you talk about the meaning of the phrase “the door is always open”?
That phrase has stuck with me, especially after losing my father about three years ago. That was a phrase that he would always tell me. It was his way of saying, Gary, don’t be afraid to visit your folks. But I also took it in a broader sense, that no matter how well or not well I was doing in my life, his home was always open to me.
How do you intend for viewers to interact with your art?
The idea of a traditional retrospective didn’t interest me as much as creating some kind of art installation. I wanted to create an environment where people could be welcome. Each room would represent a theme within my work. So you could come into the dining room, and the dining room is about celebration. You walk through my hallway, and that’s about journeys. You go into the study, it’s about inspiration and heritage. You go into the den and it’s about play. And then you can go sit in my chairs in the den and turn on my TV show Teacher’s Pet and watch that. You can go to the game table, sit down and play the game Cranium, which I created the characters for. I wanted something that was interactive, that told people they’re allowed to be creative—that whatever inhibitions they had before they came in could be removed. The reason that the door is always open is not just the door itself, but that the creative door is always open.
I personally believe that art is very magical and special, but it shouldn’t be precious. I want to create an environment where people aren’t walking in and feeling like, the art’s important, it’s under glass, it’s roped away and you really don’t have access to it. To the point where you don’t even need to understand what it’s about—you should just be honored to be in its presence.
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist?
I don’t remember a moment in my life where I didn’t plan on becoming a professional artist. In elementary school, I remember always drawing. I also remember when you had to write about a career, I wrote about cartooning. I wrote my first kids’ book when I was, I think, 10. I was voted Most Artistic in high school. My whole identity was being an artist.
Do you see your art as subversive, or more sincere?
For me, the most important thing for my art is to be true. I describe my work as a celebration of the bittersweetness of life. In my twenties, I realized with my art that true perfection was almost imperfection. What I tried to do is embrace my own vulnerability in my artwork. And that’s when my art developed a maturity. In my art, I love to push emotional buttons, and I like to challenge people and I want to make people think. But it’s not malicious.
Why are you drawn to masks and costumes?
I think part of it has to do with my love for monsters and Halloween. As a child, that was the holiday I looked forward to. Maybe because of candy, but it’s something that aesthetically had this beauty to me. As a little kid, the first book I ever wrote was called Gary and the Monsters. Instead of me killing the monsters, in the book I actually become the new Dracula. And then I started collecting these photos of people in masks. I have close to 2000 photos of people in masks from 1915 to 1950. They’re beautiful and haunting and otherworldly. In a way if you hide your physical presence, there’s a way to release your true self.
Gary Baseman’s “The Door Is Always Open” is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. April 25 to August 18. The accompanying catalogue The Door Is Always Open, published by Rizzoli, is available now.