Artist Gary Baseman has arrived at the Skirball Cultural Center with a brightly colored throw pillow under his arm and a determined look on his face.
After greeting security guards and the few visitors browsing his sprawling retrospective exhibition "The Door Is Always Open," Baseman placed the pillow on a sofa in one of the galleries. He took several snapshots and kept adjusting the pillow until it looked just right to him.
The pillow was no ordinary decorative item. It was a loud blue with a menacing message spelled out in flowery lettering: "Play with me or else."
Is that a threat? Or just a dark joke? Like much of Baseman's pop-surrealist art, it can be interpreted different ways: humorous and threatening, bizarre and comforting, a cushion to be cuddled or used to suffocate.
Baseman's fantasy worlds are populated by demonic clowns, cute monsters and psychedelic dolls pulled from his childhood subconscious. His work contains elements of Marc Chagall, Walt Disney and Takashi Murakami.
Even though the retrospective had already opened with more than 400 items, Baseman is still adding material. In his cluttered, constantly churning state of mind, no work is completely finished until it is pulled from his hands, usually by force of deadline.
Luckily for Baseman, the security guards at the Skirball haven't stopped him from tinkering with his own show.
The exhibition, running through Aug. 18, is modeled upon the four-plex building in Los Angeles' Fairfax district where Baseman grew up.
"I didn't want to create a typical gallery space," the artist explained. He said that rummaging through the clutter of his late parents' home — his father died in 2010 and his mother in October — gave him the idea of making his family life public.
The exhibition has vintage family furniture that visitors can touch and sit on: a dining table prepared for a seder dinner; bright orange arm chairs and a living room couch so lived-in, its cushions threaten to swallow people who sit on it.
The show's eclectic and somewhat manic nature reflects the multiple facets of the Baseman career arc. Visitors may recognize illustrations he's done for publications, including covers for Time, the Atlantic and the New Yorker magazines as well as the L.A. Times Calendar section.
He has designed big-eyed toys (his "Toby" doll is the most famous) and the Hasbro board game Cranium.
He was the co-creator of the 2000 Disney animated TV series "Teacher's Pet," with Nathan Lane as the voice of a dog who aspires to be a boy. (The Emmy Awards that Baseman won for the show are in the exhibition.)
There's little that is subtle about Baseman's art and the same could be said for Baseman himself. Voluble, with an enthusiasm that comes at you like a tidal wave, Baseman is a 52-year-old with an adolescent sense of exuberant mischief.
"I want to disarm people with my art. I want them to feel their own 'uncomfortableness,'" he said.
If there's a thread that unifies the retrospective, it's the primacy of family, specifically the pull of his Jewish roots. There are numerous family photographs — from seders, bar mitzvahs, birthday gatherings.
His parents fled Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe and made L.A. their home after spending several years in Canada. His father was an electrician and his mother worked in the bakery at Canter's Deli.
The exhibition's title is a homage to Baseman's father, who frequently entertained guests at their home.