Call it the Velvet Shuffle. When pedestrians walk past Chinatown's Velveteria, one of the only velvet painting museums in the world, they do the same dance. First they glance, then slow down, then stutter-step to a stall and finally, just stop and stare. Right now, their window display includes everything from velvet paintings of Vin Scully to Clint Eastwood to Snoop Dogg to the Mona Lisa. Velveteria co-founder Carl Baldwin laughs: "The look on their faces is as if they had just woken up from a deep sleep. For a split second they are back in a childlike innocent state instead of the neurotic mind of modern society."
The first thing one should know about the Velveteria is that it's not dedicated to kitsch. Yes, there is an entire hallway filled with Elvis paintings and yes, there is a remarkably photorealistic portrait of Miley Cyrus's infamous, tongue-waggling Video Music Awards incident but there's no winking irony to its intent, no so-bad-it's-cool posture to its purpose. Baldwin says, in complete earnestness, "we're reviving the greatest art in the history of man" and he chafes at the dismissal of velvet painting as somehow beneath any concept of "respectable art."
"I don't go down those paths of high art and low art. I think it's democratic art. It's art of the people.
The Velveteria opened in Chinatown in 2013, having first opened in Portland, Oregon in 2005 to much unanticipated fanfare. The museum's co-founder, Caren Anderson shares that when she and Baldwin began, it was mostly because both felt that, "these paintings really should be shown. We had no idea, in our wildest dreams, that we would end up being on House and Garden TV or the Travel Channel." Most recently, Qantas Airlines's in-flight magazine published a feature on them. Anderson surmises that some may come to the museum to gawk or poke fun but many are also, "genuinely interested. There are some art people that may not want to admit it but once they see the scope of the collection, it's pretty amazing."
One of the most unlikely details about how Anderson and Baldwin got started is where they both came from: the stony San Gabriel Valley suburb of San Marino where the two first met as high school students in the 1970s. I asked Anderson if she grew up in a household that had velvet paintings and she practically snorted back, "are you kidding? My mom wouldn't ever have allowed something like that into the house." Given their roots, it's a rich inside joke that amongst the Velveteria's collection is a velvet reproduction of Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," arguably the most famous painting in San Marino's storied Huntington Library.
Baldwin and Anderson unexpectedly reconnected some 20 years after high school and on a random thrift-shopping jaunt to Bisbee, Arizona, they came across a striking velvet painting of a woman with a shock blue Afro. "We looked at each other and thought, 'Whatever happened to these?,'" recalls Baldwin. "These once were everywhere, but I hadn't seen one in 25 years?" So began their trip down what Baldwin calls "the velvet trail."
That trail has a far longer history than many might assume. As the museum chronicles on handwritten notecard wall text, velvet was being used as a painting medium as early as 19th century Japan, except there, it was white "cut-velvet," that possesses a unique texture all its own. The "modern" era of painting on black velvet is often credited to Edgar Leeteg, an American who lived in Tahiti from the 1930s through '50s. Leeteg originally started as a portrait painter but as lore has it, one day he ran out of canvas and happened upon a funeral home where he the black velvet lining for coffins intrigued him. However accurate or apocryphal that tale might be, Leeteg's choice of medium proved fateful. Images don't just sit atop velvet, they emerge from its dark sheen with a startling presence. "It's the chiaroscuro effect," Baldwin explains, "light out of the darkness." Moreover, because the texture of velvet is reminiscent of fur, the medium invokes a sense of life that lends itself to hyper-real portraiture.
Of course, it also didn't hurt business that Leeteg and his contemporaries were often known for painting nudes of "island" women. As the Velveteria's adults-only backroom attests to, velvet nudes were a genre unto themselves, especially up through the 1970s when artists would cater to mostly male soldiers and tourists traveling through Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. Baldwin cites one key hub for the velvet trade during the Vietnam War, Angeles City in the Philippines: "the G.I.s would go there for R&R on their way back and forth to 'Nam and it was a big city full of velvet painters, whorehouses, bars, and all kinds of craziness. These guys with good taste in art would buy naked ladies and then bring them back to San Diego."
These histories factor into how and why velvet painting remains dogged with disrepute. As Baldwin surmises, it may be a "Puritan ethic" applied to the "naked ladies on the velvet" that explains why the art world rarely has embraced the medium. It's also the case that contemporary art has moved towards more abstract or conceptual practices while velvet largely sticks with realist portraiture. Finally, when American and Mexican entrepreneurs created an assembly-line process of churning out inexpensive velvet paintings in the early 1970s, the ensuing flood all but guaranteed a vexing association between velvet and cheap kitsch. Anderson shows me a relatively new painting, done by a Diana Cone when she was a college senior at Oregon State University: "her art teacher told her not to paint on velvet. We've heard that so many times."
For all these reasons, Velveteria serves to counter the negative reputation of velvet by presenting the artists and their work on its own merits. There are walls and rooms dedicate to different masters of the art, different eras and styles of the medium. At this point, the Velveteria -- which is very much a DIY endeavor -- has grown enough in reputation that other institutions have borrowed from them; last year, they sent a Leeteg nude to Paris's musée du Quai Branly for their "Tiki Pop" exhibit. The Velveteria continues to track down vintage pieces, especially those that lie outside the conventional realm of celebrity or religious portraits. Anderson shares one of the quirkier finds of late: a velvet painting of a surgery, made in the Philippines by
an unknown artist Felix Gonzales back in the 1960s or '70s. "I don't know if someone painted it for the doctors themselves. I've never seen anything like that, even in a regular oil painting."
Anderson and Baldwin also commission new paintings, often using a network of highly skilled, but anonymous, painters in Mexico who Baldwin sends images to via email. "I can get anything on velvet if anybody wants something. I've done a couple of commissions for some people, but I can't talk about them; that's a surprise," he says with a wink.
Meanwhile, the two velvet proselytizers continue their uphill battle to earn the art the respect they feel like it deserves. Baldwin scoffs at what he describes as the "dowdy, powdered wig, European art."
"It's not the only art in the history of man," he insists. "I can't relate to that. How does a kid in Peru or Mexico or Vietnam relate to that powdered wig guy? They don't!" He mentions that a Chinese news network recently profiled them and Baldwin asked the reporter, of all art in America, how the hell did you pick us?" The reply? "We're going to show the Chinese people what real American art is.