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Nightmares of Halloweens Past

Artist Gary Baseman previews his "freaky" vintage photo collection going on display

by Julie Wolfson in Culture on 19 October 2012

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Gary Baseman's work merges his life journey and family history with colorful pop images from his boundless imagination. Exploring the almost overwhelming amount of past and present projects in his studio, it's becomes clear that Baseman truly loves Halloween. This weekend at KK Gallery in Los Angeles, the newest gallery space from KesselsKramer, Baseman will be sharing some of his beloved vintage photographs of costumed characters. This massive collection has been an obsessive quest of Baseman's for many years and will eventually become a conceptual book examining the imagery.

At the opening night celebration, the band Nightmare and the Cat, longtime collaborators of Baseman's, will be playing some of their haunting music to help set the tone for a night of exploring the creepy beauty of the images. The exhibit will also feature nine original paintings on canvas that represent enlarged versions of some of his favorite masked images. Baseman generously opened his studio for a preview of what's in store, revealing layer upon layer of his family history, colorful characters, shelves of sketchbooks, art by his friends, original toys and the thousands of vintage images in his collection.

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What compels you to make art?

Art is magical but not precious. Humanity is the inspiration for all art. In some ways art forgets about how important people are. What I am trying to do with a lot of my art is let people know that they can create, they can participate, they can share. When I have my retrospective at the Skirball, my goal is to make it interactive, and I want to inspire people to be able to tell their story and realize that it's not that hard to draw or write or sing music.

How did "Nightmares of Halloweens Past" become the first exhibit at KK Gallery?

It's a brand new LA gallery. I got to meet them a few months ago when they came out here. They are opening here in Chinatown and they have galleries in London and Amsterdam. They are known for progressive and intriguing exhibitions. I had a show in Milan in April and I was not planning to have a show in LA until my retrospective at the Skirball in April, but I love LA. I love having events here and I haven't had one in a while. A lot of people know about my photo collection and my obsession, so this is a good first way to bring it out to the public.

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Can you describe the photos in the exhibit and what you will be showing?

I have this insane obsession with collecting photos of people in masks. They are all original photos. When I find them I need to own the original. I don't want them to just be seen as some type of ephemera. For the last few years there has been this trend to collect vernacular photos by unknown photographers. I have collected these because to me they are beautiful works of art.

Where do you find photographs?

Flea markets, ebay. I own about 1,500-2,000 of them. I have been collecting them for a long time. I have been working on a book and I want it to be a true art book. I want to find writers to write about these pieces and the human condition. I picked about 120 that I feel are a good representation for the book. Eighty of those pieces will be in this exhibition. They are from 1910-1950.

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I blew up nine of them to larger sizes that I painted on. It's a way for me to take them from the real world into my personal world, by what I call manifestations of desire, which I use in my paintings. Using images that exist in photography that feel surreal in a way or otherworldly and adding these elements, they become part of my painting. I have had other exhibitions where I use old ephemera. A year ago I had an exhibition at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, "Walking Through Walls." That was the first time I actually used some of these photos in my work. I have always been inspired by them, but I had never wanted to use them because they were so perfect the way they were. Then with my art I got obsessed with this one little ghost girl. From that it turned into a way of using her as an iconic image.

What does Halloween mean to you?

It is one of my favorite holidays. That's because there is a certain playfulness, a darkness. Even with these photos, they look really creepy and freaky, but you know that under the mask they are having the time of their lives. It hasn't been that long since I was a kid going trick-or-treating and I looked forward to it. It was when the world turned into a land of candy. It was like everyone was scary in a way but we were all getting treats and tricks too.

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You also created your own holiday.

I had an exhibition three years ago called "La Noche de la Fusión." It was inspired by Carnival. I have been to Brazil a couple times during Carnival. I have also visited temples in Chiang Mai and Kyoto. What I wanted to do was create a holiday. I used Spanish to give the impression that the holiday existed in other cultures. It celebrates the night of the fusing and the melting and blurring, the night that the walls that society created for us came down rather than us having to walk through them. This was the night the walls came down so everyone could discover and accept their true self. With that, we had this kind of Carnival event. About 2,000 people came. I wanted people to come in costume and we also had new characters of mine in costumes I created with the goal of helping people loose their inhibitions for them to loose themselves and participate. I tried to find unique ways to get people to want to participate and go home with a memory piece.

"Nightmares of Halloweens Past" runs 20 October-24 November 2012.

Images courtesy of Gary Baseman

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