Crushin’ on vel­vet art

Mu­seum gives the art the warm and fuzzy treat­ment, and re­spect, it sel­dom re­ceives

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA

It is hard to say with ab­so­lute cer­tainty which of the hun­dreds of paint­ings at Vel­vete­ria, Los An­ge­les’ vel­vet paint­ing mu­seum, are the most strangely sub­lime.

There’s the wall of clowns in a con­tin­uum of happy-sad moods, one of them clutch­ing a chim­panzee in a dress. There’s the mul­ti­tude of vel­vet Elvises, the most f lam­boy­ant of which is rid­ing a uni­corn in the com­pany of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and James Dean. And, of course, there’s the por­trait of An­der­son Cooper — in a thong.

In be­tween, there are ce­ramic tiki glasses, a taxi­dermy ar­madillo posed to look as if it’s drink­ing a beer and a pair of small plas­ter stat­ues made in the like­ness of 18th cen­tury Bri­tish painter Thomas Gains­bor­ough’s paint­ing “Blue Boy.” Nat­u­rally, they ac­com­pany a black vel­vet re­pro­duc­tion of Gains­bor­ough’s fa­mous can­vas.

It’s safe to say that Vel­vete­ria is not your av­er­age loaded-with-art­s­peak, whis­per-in-the gal­leries kind of mu­seum. Tucked into an old store­front on New High Street in Chi­na­town, this 1 1⁄2- year old repos­i­tory of folk art weird­ness is the brain­child of Los An­ge­les na­tive Carl Baldwin and his part­ner, Caren An­der­son — a paean to an art form that Baldwin says “just doesn’t get any re­spect.”

“I like to think that we’re like the Medi­cis of vel­vet paint­ing,” he says with a grin, “help­ing re­vive the art.”

This past week, Vel­vete­ria added a new por­trait of Cait­lyn Jen­ner fol­low­ing her highly pub­li­cized gen­der tran­si­tion. Baldwin likes to stay on top of the news and pop cul­ture, fre­quently com­mis­sion­ing works from es­tab­lished vel­vet

pain­ters he has come to know in Tijuana and Juarez, Mex­ico.

Lanky, with a bois­ter­ous laugh and a surfer’s lan­guid speech pat­terns, Baldwin is all Made in Cal­i­for­nia — and a nat­u­ral spin­ner of yarns.

Born in Santa Mon­ica in 1953 (“my birth broke up my doc­tor’s date with Ann Miller”), Baldwin spent much of his youth on Bal­boa Is­land in New­port Beach. It was there that he dis­cov­ered vel­vet paint­ings.

“We lived near the fun zone,” he re­calls. “And there was this head­shop called Nir­vana, with a black-light room that had a devil paint­ing and a bunch of posters. It was so cool.”

This ini­tial in­ter­est was fur­ther cul­ti­vated by vis­its to an un­cle’s house in Fuller­ton.

“He had trav­eled all over: Tahiti, Burma, In­dia; he’d made his way through the Khy­ber Pass with a bunch of cut­throat types,” Baldwin re­calls. “And he had this closet full of naked-lady vel­vet paint­ings that he’d picked up along the way. Of course, we’d sneak in and look at them. And we got in trou­ble for do­ing it.”

Vel­vet wouldn’t be­come an ob­ses­sion for Baldwin un­til many years later — af­ter a cir­cuitous ca­reer path that took him from work in polling re­search to car sales to beer vend­ing. There was even a stint car­ing for his ail­ing grand­mother in Tucson.

But his back­ground in art is limited — his de­gree is in Amer­i­can his­tory.

“I only took a sin­gle art class the en­tire time I was in col­lege,” he says proudly. “It was a class on po­lit­i­cal art and car­toon­ing with Paul Con­rad,” re­fer­ring to the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning car­toon­ist who worked at The Times for three decades un­til 1993. (The mu­seum also con­tains a signed, framed car­toon by Con­rad that shows Richard Nixon sit­ting atop a pile of skulls.)

But Baldwin’s in­ter­est in vel­vet art came roar­ing back to life al­most 15 years ago when he found him­self at a thrift store in Bis­bee, Ariz., while he was still living in Tucson.

“I find an im­age of JFK and an im­age of a woman with a blue afro, and I was like, where have all the vel­vet paint­ings gone?” he says. He snapped up the paint­ing of the woman for $35 (the JFK was too moth­e­aten). “And that’s when I started on the vel­vet train.”

Shortly there­after, he moved to Port­land, Ore., to be closer to An­der­son, who was work­ing as a psy­chi­atric nurse in the area. And that’s when he re­ally be­gan to col­lect.

“Dur­ing the day I’m get­ting paint­ings in thrift shops,” he says, “and sell­ing beer at night.”

The his­tory of vel­vet goes back cen­turies. The wo­ven, tufted fab­ric, which in the early days was made from silk, was likely de­vel­oped in China by the 13th cen­tury, if not ear­lier. But it re­ally took off in the West dur­ing the 15th cen­tury when Mediter­ranean weavers pro­duced an ar­ray of spec­tac­u­larly pat­terned tex­tiles. It was a sym­bol of wealth and power, worn by mem­bers of the up­per class and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials in the Catholic church.

Like­wise, paint­ing on vel­vet also has deep roots. Vel­vet was be­ing used as a can­vas in 14th cen­tury Kash­mir, 16th cen­tury China and even 19th cen­tury Eng­land (though, sadly, not by Gains­bor­ough). In fact, in the mu­seum, Baldwin has a cou­ple of small, early 20th cen­tury land­scapes from Ja­pan crafted from painted and shaved vel­vet, which gives the fab­ric a three-di­men­sional qual­ity.

By 2005, Baldwin had ac­quired roughly 1,000 paint­ings — mod­ern pieces from through­out the South Pa­cific, Mex­ico and the United States. It was then that he and An­der­son de­cided to open a mu­seum, a small base­ment op­er­a­tion lo­cated in southeast Port­land.

“We opened in De­cem­ber of 2005,” he re­calls. “Caren had gone to a for­tune teller who told her she was go­ing to do some­thing amaz­ing in 2005, so we had to open in 2005 so that we could ful­fill Madame Coco’s pre­dic­tion.”

The Port­land mu­seum drew its fair share of at­ten­tion: It was fea­tured on NPR and CBS, and at one point, An­thony Bour­dain paid a visit. But Baldwin was itch­ing to move back to L.A.

“I was like, ‘I can’t spend an­other July 4th in ther­mal un­der­wear in the rain,’ ” he re­calls. “Seventy per­cent of our busi­ness was out-oftown peo­ple, so we de­cided to start look­ing around L.A.”

In 2013, Vel­vete­ria opened its doors in Chi­na­town, where for a $10 ad­mis- sion mem­bers of the public can ogle the col­lec­tion as long as they like (along with the faux tiger skin car­pets and ar­range­ments of cro­cheted poo­dles).

Since land­ing here, Baldwin has been busier than ever. He es­ti­mates his col­lec­tion now num­bers 3,000 to 3,500 works. (Only a few hun­dred are shown at any given time at the mu­seum. The rest are kept at a stor­age unit in Palm Springs.)

It has been dur­ing this time that he has added some of Vel­vete­ria’s more sig­nif­i­cant pieces, in­clud­ing can­vases by Edgar Leeteg, the early 20th cen­tury Amer­i­can artist who lived in Tahiti and who is of­ten con­sid­ered the fa­ther of mod­ern vel­vet paint­ing. Leeteg was known for pro­duc­ing ro­man­tic images of grass-skirted dancers and grace­ful women in col­or­ful sarongs.

Th­ese, says Baldwin, were ac­quired from an oral sur­geon who had fallen on hard times and was living near Hemet.

“He was living in this Dodge con­ver­sion van, sur­rounded by th­ese mar­ble stat­ues that he used to have in his house in Pasadena,” Baldwin says. “‘It was the women,’ he told me. ‘ The women took it all. Ev­ery­thing.’ But he died with a smile on his face be­cause the one thing the women didn’t want was his vel­vet paint­ings.”

Baldwin says he agreed to buy the good doc­tor’s col­lec­tion of nearly 100 works: “I can’t dis­close how much I spent or I might be put in an in­sane asy­lum.”

Since then, he has added count­less other works: a paint­ing of Mi­ley Cyrus do­ing her tongue thing; an im­age of a be­daz­zled Lib­er­ace in full per­for­mance mode. There are dogs play­ing poker and count­less images of the fa­mous, from the Three Stooges to KABC weath­er­man Dal­las Raines.

On a re­cent driz­zly af­ter­noon, he is ar­rang­ing a new show in honor of gay pride ti­tled “Gover­nor Brown De­clares the Drought Is Over Be­cause It’s Rain­ing Men.” It fea­tures LGBT fig­ures, the thonged por­trait of Cooper and var­i­ous shirt­less men.

“Any­thing fea­tur­ing a man with his shirt off is game,” he re­marks.

For Baldwin, it’s all part of his mission to raise the pro­file of a paint­ing style he con­sid­ers crim­i­nally un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated by the main­stream art world.

“I re­mem­ber once I was out in Red­ding, Cal­i­for­nia, and Lisa Marie Pres­ley was play­ing a gig, and I’d just bought a Vel­vet Elvis,” he says. “It’s like there is an un­seen hand guiding all of this.”

Pho­tog raphs by Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

CARL BALDWIN,

above, and part­ner Caren An­der­son opened the Vel­vete­ria mu­seum in Chi­na­town in 2013 in an at­tempt to re­vive an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated art form.

CAIT­LYN JEN­NER is the lat­est vel­vet por­trait join­ing thou­sands of pieces owned by Vel­vete­ria’s Carl Baldwin.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

FOR­GET THE BLUE SUEDE SHOES.

Elvis and vel­vet have al­ways been a per­fect fit, as is clear in the Vel­vete­ria mu­seum’s Elvis Hall.

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