US artist Gary Baseman in Hong Kong for Toby celebration show

American's works mix the creepy with the cuddly to deliver a strong social message

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 8:53am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:55pm

A giant inflatable fez-wearing character sways awkwardly outside Times Square Living Room Museum, an afternoon downpour failing to dampen its party spirit. This is Toby, the most popular character from the wild imagination of US artist Gary Baseman, who is in Hong Kong to pay homage to his alter ego with the "Happy Toby to You" exhibition until June 11.

But what Baseman has created at the museum's space is more religion than art - walking into the high-ceilinged gallery is like entering the Church of Toby, his face peering at the viewer from every angle. You may expect a piano in the corner to play Toby tunes and Toby-shaped candles flickering in the corner. Baseman has gone all out to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his best friend.

It's a couple of days before the show's opening and Baseman is making some final touches. He strides forward wearing a big smile and a small straw hat, wisps of silver hair waving out the side matching his almost-perfect triangular goatee. He hands over a toy. "Meet Toby."

It's hard not to take an instant liking to Baseman: he's funny and self-deprecating - "I tend to put both feet in my mouth" - and full of contradictions, much like his art which, at first glance, looks innocent enough. You'll first notice pastel-coloured fairy tale-like drawings with forest creatures frolicking in the woods, but look closer and it's a different story - there are creatures with missing body parts, blood dripping from a wolf's mouth, skeletons, ghosts and naked women entangled in weird sexual positions, some with rabbits and some oozing pink gunk from their bellies. It's like taking an acid trip and wandering on the set of Alice in Wonderland after having not slept for three days.

It's Baseman's ability to mix the creepy with the cuddly that has allowed him to appeal to both adults and children. "I try to keep it childlike and adult. I don't really walk that fine line, I break the line. How to create something that's playful, but at same time I take life seriously," he says.

Baseman's work also aims to blur the line between fine art and toy culture - and it all comes with a strong social message. "Toby is based on my tomboy friend growing up in LA. She was four years older and I loved her … What Toby taught me then, and what he means now, is all about acceptance - acceptance of yourself and acceptance of others. He's my alter ego, but the goal of Toby is to be the keeper of secrets, the secrets I could not even share with my closest friends or family … I thought they would judge me."

The character has been a faithful friend and travel companion to the 54-year-old artist, the pair having traversed multiple cultures and lands with an open heart and mind. And it's the 200 images taken during these whirlwind journeys, a travelogue of famous sites and monuments from around the world, that forms the most impressive part of the Hong Kong exhibition. And instead of Baseman in the shots, it's Toby grinning back at you.

"These photos are a small example of the tens of thousands I've taken of him … I've taken all of them, oh, apart from one," he says. But more on that later.

Inside the shrine to Toby are framed images stretching from floor to rafters: Toby at Red Square in Moscow, Toby by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Toby with one of the queen's guards in London, Toby on China's Great Wall, Toby riding a gondola in Venice, Toby in Israel, Toby at the carnival in Brazil, Toby in Ukraine, Toby in Mexico, Toby at Auschwitz in Poland … you get the picture.

"This is the first picture I took of Toby," says Baseman, pointing to an image of Toby at Vatican City in Rome, the ornate Sistine Chapel ceiling in the backdrop. "It was taken on April 2, 2005, and you know what else happened that day? The pope [John Paul II] died," he says, casting more spiritual light on him.

You have to fight the urge to jump up and down screaming "Toby for Pope, Toby for Pope" because that's how infectious Toby fever is when you're around Baseman. He has the ability to take you to a warm and happy place and make you feel, well, warm and happy. Toby's magic is revealed in another shot, one of him with Marina Abramovic, the Serbian-born performance artist who, in 2010 during a show at Moma in LA, invited visitors to take the seat across from her. "I was in this restaurant in LA and she came and sat right across from me. It was such a coincidence."

He's my alter ego, but the goal of Toby is to be the keeper of secrets, the secrets I could not even share with my closest friends or family
Gary Baseman

But it's the image of a wrinkled old woman in a headscarf sharing a bench with Toby that, while innocuous at first glance, has the most powerful back story. The photo was taken during a trip to Baseman's father's and mother's tiny hometowns in Poland (Baseman's parents survived the Holocaust and went to the US via Canada in 1957) and when Baseman learned about the horrors of what his parents endured. "There were mass murders in their towns … The story needed to be told," he says.

(Last year Baseman was part of a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary, Mythical Creatures, that tells the tragic lessons of the Holocaust through his parents' harrowing experiences using animation featuring Baseman's characters and creatures.)

Then, like a flick of a switch, Basemen goes from sad to happy, dark to light. "The only picture I didn't take is that one," he says, pointing at a shot of Toby floating in choppy waters next to a giant shark breaching the surface. "That's Toby with a great white shark. The picture was taken by my good friend Michael Muller," he says, referring to the American photographer who travels the world capturing underwater images of sharks.

It's like a Toby's Lonely Planet to the World, but you are never lonely because Toby, "the keeper of secrets", is always with you: "Toby is omnipresent. He's everywhere."

But while Basemen aims to create a place that's familiar and comfortable (for his shows in LA, Shanghai and Taipei he constructed a home in the exhibition space - "a space where people should not be intimidated by art" - using actual furniture such as sofas and chairs from his house in LA), he's quick to point out that art should be challenging - and for the masses.

"Art is about sharing: sharing our lives, our narratives and hopes and dreams … It's not for the chosen few. The best art is about the human condition."

While his creative credentials are impressive - Baseman has worked in illustration, fine art, toy design, and animation (he created the Disney cartoon series Teacher's Pet and was artistic designer of the popular board game Cranium) - his aesthetic that combines pop art images, pre- and post-war vintage motifs, cross-cultural mythology and literary and psychological archetypes has also won him fans in the commercial sphere (he collaborated with Coach to create quirky monsters for the fashion label's spring 2015 collection).

Leaving the museum, Baseman asks for recommendations of places to take Toby. Sham Shui Po and Toby on a tram spring to mind, but by the looks of Baseman's Instagram account showing Toby eating dim sum and Toby on The Peak, it seems this birthday boy/girl/cat creature needs little help finding fun.