Perhaps you've seen Spot, the knowledge-hungry blue dog who wears clothes so he can go to school, in the cartoon/movie "Disney's Teacher's Pet." Or maybe you've played Cranium, the playfully anarchic board game that challenges you to use every part of your brain. On some level, you may have noticed the quietly subversive edge they both possess.
Their creator, Gary Baseman, will be in Orlando for a lecture on Thursday, April 29, presented by the Orlando chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (orlando.aiga.org). Baseman's topic will be "Pervasive Art," which is a pretty good description of his work, both professional and personal -- he explores every medium. "For me, the excitement is in touching the audience in all different ways," he says from his California home.
Although "Teacher's Pet" is a relatively new show, Baseman, now 43, has been hard at work at his drawing table for the last two decades. Long ago, he blew off an early decision to go to law school and instead began pounding the New York pavement as an aspiring graphic designer. In addition to movies and television, this extremely prolific artist creates paintings, posters and toys; his countless illustrations include work for bigwig clients such as Chili's, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. He also recently finished a book, "Dumb Luck: The Art of Gary Baseman," which will be published in May by Chronicle Books.
However, Baseman's personal artwork -- he has had several solo gallery shows, and some of his works are on permanent display in national museums -- is a far stretch from standard corporate (especially Disney) fare. Many feature bizarrely gutted creatures of unidentifiable species. Some are strung up and hit with like piñatas until their organs fall to the ground, yet they smile. Despite their cartoony feel, the images are immensely analytical and moving.
"I love to make people think and challenge them conceptually, yet also touch people's emotions," he says. "I like to balance between things that are smart and things that are very moronic."
Last fall, in a solo New York show, "Happy Idiot," a recurring image emerged: a three-headed snowman (each head representing the id, ego or superego) holding a mermaid. "The snowman is willing to melt himself so that the mermaid can live within his body of water," Baseman says. "A lot of it has to do with the notion of sacrifice."
His paintings' themes (attraction, love, sex) are very adult, yet Baseman draws a firm line between the age groups of his audiences. "I would never include those themes in something that was meant for children."
One recent "adult" piece -- a toy he designed, aimed at the grown-up toy collector -- is called "Dumb Luck": A smiling bunny standing on a peg leg holds "his own lucky rabbit's foot."
"`He's` so thrilled ... but at what cost?" Baseman says. "The underlying theme is, 'Be careful what you wish for.'"