Gary and the Monsters

Halloween, a widely celebrated American tradition with European roots, has for a long time been a source of inspiration for Gary Baseman. Here’s a brief history of the artist’s relationship with this spooky celebration.

Growing up as a latchkey kid with plenty of time to himself, Baseman found in drawing and television entertainment the perfect combo to unlock his creative potential by turning the living room into his studio. “As a child,” Baseman reflects, “I devised an imaginary home that had many unknown doors, housed in an alternative world with characters that were often monsters.” 

Obsessed with these imaginary creatures, he would turn into one himself. “So obsessed, I would bite friends on the neck as I played vampire,” Baseman explains. “I was convinced that my real world had monsters. There were bogeymen under my bed.” At only nine years old, the young artist created his own illustrated book Gary and the Monsters for a school assignment, reinterpreting the characters he admired on TV. His teacher Miss Maller commented, “Your book shows a lot of imagination + effort. It was very enjoyable to read. I think your pictures are just darling.” For Baseman, Halloween was an extension of his love of the otherworldly monsters and characters he grew up watching.

Baseman would carry this love for Halloween as an adult. He wandered around flea markets to collect vintage photographs of people in Halloween masks and costumes. Originating from the late 19th century to the mid-1950s, the photographs in his collection show anonymous images of American families, friends, and children that once a year became characters from other worlds. Baseman explains, “While many of these photographs are eerie on the surface, I imagine that underneath each mask worn by every man, woman, and child, there’s the biggest smile on their face.”

But how has this imagery inspired Baseman in his fine art work? In 2011, with the loss of his father Ben Baseman, the so-called ghosts and monsters that inhabit the photographic memories in his collection would serve as a source to develop and create the paintings for Walking Through Walls, the artist’s second solo exhibition at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York. A tribute to ghosts and ancestors, as curator Alice Hutchison says, Walking Through Walls brings together a body of work that addresses ideas of mortality and breaking boundaries in life and in Baseman’s art. 

These monsters and ghosts wander constantly and cross boundaries into Baseman’s imagination; Halloween iconography appears frequently in his work. Most recently in 2020, Baseman captured the holiday with images of Blackie the Cat frolicking with an amiable pumpkin and other friends. In many different ways, Halloween is always present in Baseman’s world. It is not a one-day celebration, but a continuous celebration of life and times past and present. 

Bibliographical reference: The Door is Always Open (Skira Rizzoli, 2013) and forthcoming Nightmares of Halloween Past (Twofauns Press, 2022)

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