By Michael Aushenker
On a sleepy, sunshine-flooded Tuesday afternoon, the pop artist, illustrator, and award-winning animated TV series creator Gary Baseman is inside the slick, funky, contemporary building housing Shulamit Gallery, located just on the edge of Venice Boulevard before it segues into the Venice Boardwalk.
Nearby, the art house’s namesake, Shulamit Nazarian, wears a relaxed smile as Baseman works the room, passionately recounting his personal history and his artistic process to a small circle of visitors, hopping one by one through the 22 paintings and other pieces on display with the enthusiasm of a little boy trying to impress his parents’ friends. Meanwhile, Nazarian’s employees at Shulamit Gallery shine in the afterglow of the past weekend’s crazed and chaotic opening reception for Baseman, the creator of Disney’s animated series “Teacher’s Pet” (for which he won three Emmy Awards) and the popular board game Cranium.
Celebrating Shulamit Gallery’s one-year anniversary this month, Nazarian, with three years worth of exhibits lined up, is, along with artists such as Baseman, continuing her gallery’s mission is to give exposure to Persian, Jewish, and Persian-Jewish artists. So far, Shulamit has represented such artists as David Abir, Orit Hofshi, Krista Nassi, Tal Shochat, Jessica Shokrian, and now Baseman, whose exhibit opened on Oct. 5 at the 17 N. Venice Blvd. location.
Nazarian, who originally conceived Shulamit as a “roaming gallery” in 2006 with art events at her Holmby Hills home, found a mixed-use home and gallery residence at the western end of North Venice Boulevard, next door to LA Louver, and employed her architectural talents to overhaul the interior before opening the facility in October 2012.
“I didn’t build the building but I remodeled it to be a commercial gallery,” said Nazarian. “I worked with interior designer Linia Rosette. Once they gave me the floor plan, I changed it and did all of the finishing details.”
It may come as no surprise that Nazarian has the knack to embellish the cultural scene. Nightclub/restaurant impresario Sam Nazarian is her brother. Her sisters are author Angela Nazarian and Sharon Nazarian, head of UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Her parents, Younes and Soraya Nazarian, are big philanthropists within and outside of the Jewish community.
Born in Tehran, Iran, Nazarian immigrated to the United States to study architecture at the University of Southern California and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Upon graduating, she returned to Los Angeles and found employment at the interior design firm Wilson & Associates.
On some occasions, Nazarian still uses her home, a Smalley house by architect A. Quincy Jones that was featured in a recent Hammer Museum exhibit, to hold events for “some smaller groups of people I know or for a nonprofit organization.” Nazarian also curated an exhibit of her mother’s work at Levine Gallery in West Hollywood in 2009.
“My mother was my first artist that I was inspired by,” she said.
But it’s her recently opened Venice-based gallery which has really taken off since she opened it last year. Nazarian credits her fiancé, Bruce Adlhoch, for supporting her dream of opening her Venice venue.
“He has been instrumental in helping me create my gallery,” she said. She also praises the support from her children from a previous relationship: Ariel, 25, Aaron, 23, and Elan, 19.
“We wanted to be close to the ocean,” Nazarian said of her enterprise’s location. “We thought Venice had been a predominantly very creative area.”
Venice, as it turns out, has become the perfect place for her gallery, she says.
“Our neighbors have been extremely welcoming,” she said of L.A. Louver and James Beach restaurant. “The artist community, even the non-artist community, all have been very supportive.”
While not of Persian descent, the Jewish-American Baseman and his work fits snugly with Nazarian’s vision for her endeavor.
“We look for artists whose message is clearly of cultural heritage,” she said. “The work that we choose is pretty strong and they reference their cultural heritage in one way or another.”
Baseman has long flirted with comics and animation and he uses cartoon characters in his paintings as a way of encoding his personal history, going back to childhood in the Fairfax District and his teen years at Fairfax High School. Baseman’s Shulamit show, which runs through Dec. 14, is awash with his signature landscapes of cartoon characters gone amok. His exhibit at Shulamit picks up the thread from his career retrospective, which ran in Bel-Air over the summer.
“It’s really the continuation of what he had done at the Skirball (Cultural Center),” Nazarian said. “This new art reflects on his new awareness of his own family background. His parents both passed away pretty recently so there are revelations in his mind in how he has seen his parents (who were Holocaust survivors).”
Earlier this week, while giving a private tour of “Mythical Homeland,” Baseman told The Argonaut it was Shulamit Gallery co-director Anne Hromadka who approached him during the period of the Skirball retrospective about the prospect of doing a show with Shulamit.
For Baseman, the birch tree forest environment he has created to house his ultra-symbolic “Mythical Homeland” pieces alludes to the forest in which his parents retreated to in order to survive the Nazi occupation of Poland. The name of the Polish town (today Ukrainian) from which his father came from – Berenze – literally means “birch tree.”
Other symbols floating through Baseman’s unbridled canvases, loaded with cartoon characters, include references to the L.A. neighborhood he grew up in and still lives nearby: a lion, inspired by Fairfax High’s mascot; or a pink cardboard box, like the ones at the bakery inside Canter’s Delicatessen.
A short film echoing the story of Baseman’s parents as well as his recent journey to Eastern Europe to visit his parents’ homeland, plays in the back of the gallery. Baseman said this short film has been accepted at Sundance Lab, and at month’s end, he will be flying to Utah to begin developing the short into a feature-length documentary.
As with the Skirball exhibit, “Mythical Homeland” reflects Baseman’s personal and physical journey in the Ukraine following the passing of his parents to learn how the Poles treated the Jews during wartime, as well as the current residents’ attitudes toward them. One photo on display, snapped in a Ukrainian park which used to be a Jewish cemetery, shows Baseman in an animalistic costume, flanked by his art and photos of his parents tacked onto tree trunks. The imagery is meant to serve as a reminder to the people who live there today: “You can’t hide from the truth,” he says.
Hromadka views Shulamit as a gallery where its artists have “political conversations,” but that also provides “enriching experiences that are not always steeped in politics and as a way to see beyond the politics.”
To her surprise, Nazarian has found that “the bigger impact (of her gallery) has been in the larger art community,” not among L.A.’s Persian Jewry. However, she hopes “to communicate with my own community more clearly and engage with the Persian-Jewish community.”
In the gallery’s first year of operation, Nazarian believes “we’ve surpassed our own expectations. I know we are a different gallery because our focus is the cultural art behind it.”
Despite strides taken in exhibiting such artists as Krista Nassi; Pooya Afshar, a non-Jewish Persian who comments on such political situations as the Iran-Iraq War; and Jessica Shokrian, a documentary photographer and video artist, Nazarian says there’s more work to be done.
“There still aren’t enough galleries that exist in Los Angeles to respond to the creativity around us,” she said.