Gary Baseman's The Door Is Always Open

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Name: Gary BasemanTom Schirtz (Head of Exhibition Design and Production at Skirball Cultural Center)
Location: Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA
Size: 8,000 square feet
Years lived in: April 25 – August 18, 2013

Where do our memories end and our ever-changing interpretations of those memories begin? Artist Gary Baseman's exhibit, The Door Is Always Open, is a grandiose exploration of the nature of memory and family history realized in spectacular fashion: an 8,000 square foot home recreated and furnished with a mixture of his family's own pieces, found objects, ephemera, and a vast catalog of his own artwork throughout the years...this is a home tour like no other.

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Considering the magnitude of the exhibit, it's no surprise The Door Always Open was a team collaboration. Artist Gary Baseman shared some of his insights about the history, details, and motivations behind The Door Is Always Open, followed by exhibit designer Tom Schirtz's experience working with Gary below:

Which room evoked the strongest memories/emotions while putting together the exhibition and why?
The Study in The Door is Always Open home is the one that evokes the strongest emotions because it’s the space that reflects my family history and heritage. It’s the room with a somber tone - dark wallpaper, a lot of old family photographs, paintings and drawings about life and mortality. You’ll see my parents when they first became a couple, as well as the grandparents I never met. You’ll see my character Veritas in abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, suggesting that you can’t hide from the truth, that in those towns there were generations of Jews who once lived there, including members of my own family, the Basemans and Litvaks. 

The Study also has a few paintings from my 2011 exhibition, “Walking through Walls,” all made just after my father passed away. He was someone who walked through walls, in order to survive the war. Also on display is the Yizkor Book of Berezne that memorializes my father’s hometown. These were books written (often in Yiddish) by Holocaust survivors to help remember towns that were mass murdered. Finally, in the video in the Study, I show paperwork left from my parents – their immigration documents, a list of work camps where my father was, and identity papers showing a different family name, Lipstadt, that my parents used when they first immigrated from Eastern Europe to Canada. Let’s just say that in the past few years I’ve made a lot of discoveries about my family. Ever since my father passed away in 2010, I’ve had this strong compulsion and sense of responsibility to find and tell his and my family’s story.

Given the magnitude of (re)creating a house that's an amalgamation of memory and artwork, what proved the most difficult to stage or recreate?
The roomsare a composite of my real and imagined home. Perhaps the backyard was the most difficult because it’s the space that represents “performance.” Each room has a theme – the living room for welcome/introduction, the dining room for celebration, the office for work, the den for play, the bedroom for dreams and nightmares. I didn’t grow up with a large backyard. My backyard was mostly concrete, but there were some trees and bushes; and it was still the place where we played a lot and had birthday parties. 

I wanted to represent my childhood along with my recent performative work. You’ll see a Super-8 film I made when I was 14, as well as piñatas of my characters that wished I had growing up. “Performance,” however, was challenging to show – at least the range of performance art that I’ve done through La Noche de la Fusión, Giggle and Pop that I first did at the LA County Museum of Art and La Brea Tar Pits, and the collaboration I’ve done with the indie rock band Nightmare and the Cat. You’ll see some costumes from my performances, but you won’t get a full sense of the mythical holiday of La Noche de la Fusión, which originally had more than a dozen of my characters come to life; games and prizes, live music and dancing. You won’t see Giggle and Pop with my Wild Girls and ChouChous dancing, except for a small painting that inspired the performance. You won’t see live paintings and dynamic performances of Nightmare and the Cat, not even the resulting paintings. 

But there is only so much time and space to share all of that in this exhibition. I’m happy with the backyard, though. The Enlightened Chou shrine serves as a wonderful sight line that pulls people through the “home.” Tom Schirtz, who led the exhibition design, was creative in resolving how to create a backyard space and show film and piñatas, along with costumes and paintings. It’s a playful space that I hope people find inspiring.

What's going to happen to the furniture after the exhibit? The furniture mostly comes from my family’s home where I grew up in the Fairfax district in LA, both from the apartment where I lived and the one right above my home – that of my aunt and uncle’s place. They lived right above us, and co-owned the four-plex with my parents. Both families had similar furniture, the same lamps, similar tables. My uncle also did upholstery, so his work can be seen in sofas and chairs. I grew up eating off the dining room table you see. My first “studio” was the marble top coffee table on display. 

All the furniture will go back to the family – the sofa and chairs in the living room to my cousin; and the dining and bedroom furniture back to me. I hope that I’ll be able to use it again for future installations.  

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Apartment Therapy Survey (as answered by Tom Schirtz, Skirball's Head of Exhibition Design and Production):

My Style: The 1930s-1940s Mediterranean/Spanish style that is typically found in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles.

Inspiration: Gary's childhood home, family snapshots, and furnishings, from Gary's Jewish upbringing and American popular culture, along with the more than 300 artworks and objects from Gary's art collection. 

Favorite Element: (Almost always) the viewing “deck” at the mezzanine level. It can be a challenge at times when considering how to introduce the exhibition, but when used effectively, it really gives us a chance to create a grand (and sometimes unusual) entrance to the space.

Biggest Challenge: We really had too much space in which to easily create an intimate, homey setting.

What Friends Say: So far, most are amazed at how they really feel like they are in an actual home-even though the house has no ceilings or doors.

Biggest Embarrassment: We didn’t have the actual landscaping done the night of the opening.

Proudest DIY: Creating the bannister in front of the Gary’s commercial illustrations. We didn’t want those works covered by glass but we needed to keep them safe from sticky fingers. We built up a false floor platform and used deck railings with moldings as a fence of sorts. You really wouldn’t find anything like that in an actual home except along a second-story balcony but we think it really works as a natural part of the room.

Biggest Indulgence: It’s a close call between the antique windows in the living and dining rooms and the fireplace mantel and grill.  They are just a fraction of the overall space and furnishings but very crucial to the setting the mood and time period in the beginning of the experience.

Best Advice: Just start on it without trying too hard to plan it all out in advance (not an intuitive practice in an institution like ours). Let the space develop itself.  If something doesn’t fit or feel right get rid of it. Keep it empty over filling it up too soon. Especially if there is a lot of thrift or antique shopping involved – give yourself time to discover the “right” piece by going a lot. Find out when your favorite places get “shipments” or go on buys of their own (while I was loading up some furniture for this show, I got an incredible child’s rocking horse from a person who was bringing some estate items in for appraisal).

Dream Sources: We really love Wertz Brothers in Santa Monica – very good selection at very good prices. Craigslist is always a great resource, as are salvage and thrift stores out (far into) the San Fernando Valley.  Astek Wallcovering, who printed all of the wallpaper (and designed them with Gary), have been a great resource and partner for quite a while. Of course, we couldn’t do any of it without a great crew of very talented individuals who can do everything from creating fake stucco with paint to rewiring old lamps to making three completely separate panes of glass into one grand window.

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Resources of Note:

LIVING ROOM: 
Window and fireplace mantel – salvage yard

DINING ROOM: 
Window – salvage yard

HALL: 
Sconces – Lowe’s

STUDY: 
All furniture – Wertz Brothers

OFFICE: 
Desk – Wertz Brothers
Railings – Home Depot

DEN: 
Couch – Wertz Brothers
Windows – found in alley

BEDROOM: 
All furniture is Gary Baseman’s

BACKYARD: 
Fake turf and fence – Home Depot

MISC. :
Wall hooks for video headphones – Lowe’s bath furnishings
Wallpapers – Astek Wallcovering
Crown mouldings and baseboards – Lowe’s and Home Depot (foam not wood in most cases)
Drafting tables in artist’s studio (Hurd Gallery) – Craigslist
Children’s tables and chairs (Hurd Gallery) - IKEA

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Thanks, Gary and Tom! Special thanks to Sara Marino!

(Images: Gregory Han)

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