Sam McManis

Discoveries: L.A.’s Velveteria celebrates kitsch art form

It could be argued, maybe not by snooty art historians but certainly by congenitally low-brow connoisseurs of kitsch, that to be famous in America, truly iconic, one’s likeness must be painted on black velvet.

Step into a cramped, dimly lit storefront museum in this city’s Chinatown neighborhood, and you encounter ample evidence supporting this theory. It’s a veritable gallery of greats, all brushed in velvet for posterity: Jesus and Elvis, MLK and MJ, Marilyn and Liberace, Kennedy and Nixon.

Of course, there are the requisite sad clowns, dogs playing poker and bulls squaring off against matadors, too. But the legendary figures in this artistic movement are afforded wings: such titans of tufted fabric as Edgar Leeteg, father of velvet painting, Charles McPhee, dubbed the “Velvet Gauguin,” and 94-year-old Cecelia Rodriguez, whose career took off when she eschewed masonite for velvet.

Never heard of these “Old Masters” of the velvet medium?

Well, that alone is reason to stop at the Velveteria, a museum-cum-gallery boasting more than 2,500 examples of this art form that first gained popularity when Marco Polo discovered it along the Silk Road, arguably peaked in the United States during the Vietnam War and endures today at swap meets, inside certain dive bars and in antiques stores that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Carl Baldwin, founder of the Velveteria along with his wife, Caren Anderson, will never be accused of excessive seriousness. In fact, he may be the most whimsical art curator around, reveling in showing off such gems gracing his museum walls as Howard Stern’s, uh, dignified profile, Lucha Libre wrestlers in attack position and, in the back, behind a blushing pink curtain, bare nekkid ladies in certain suggestive motifs. But, this isn’t some winking, ironic lark for Baldwin, and to dismiss his collection as mere hack work is to invite his scorn.

“Look at this guy here, Edward Leeteg,” he says, pointing to a series of works featuring topless Tahitian women and an intricate portrait of a farmer with weathered lines creasing his face. “He’s got some really fine stuff. He was the godfather, the master, whatever you call it. He died in ’53. Fell off a motorcycle. Tragic. He was a crazy dude, a womanizer, dope head, all those things. He had a place in Tahiti called the Villa Velour. Lived in paradise. What a life.

“And look at this stuff over here. CeCe Rodriguez. Last of a generation. Last woman standing. Look at this picture of a guy in the sugar cane fields (of Hawaii). See the attention to detail? This is true fine art. It’s very difficult to paint onto velvet, you know. You can’t make a mistake because the matte of the velvet is unforgiving, like watercolor. If you aren’t perfect, it’s tossed.”

Yet, not 10 feet away from the work of Leeteg and Rodriguez are examples of those mass-produced staples of the genre – dogs playing poker – and celeb likenesses. Miley Cyrus captured in mid-twerk, or William Shatner in full “Star Trek” regalia, will never meet even the kindest critic’s definition of sublimity.

“Yeah, man, we embrace it all,” said Baldwin, issuing a bark of a laugh. “That’s what’s cool about it. Because it’s art of the people, stuff people actually hang in their house. It’s not intimidating. I mean, who doesn’t want to own E.T. on velvet? I’ve got these guys down in Mexico painting for me, so if somebody wanted an image done, we can get any image on velvet for you.”

One image, alas, not on display is a portrait of Baldwin himself. He’s quite the character, with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair he brushes out of his eyes, a matching bushy mustache and a disarming, tranquilo manner. He’s become something of a media darling, too, having appeared with his cache of crushed velvet on “The Tonight Show,” “National Geographic Intelligent Traveler,” “No Reservations With Anthony Bourdain,” NPR, Al Jazeera America and Penthouse magazine.

Until just four months ago, the Velveteria was headquartered in Portland. Though they liked the quirky vibe of that hip Northwest burg, Baldwin and Anderson are native Californians and longed to get back. Plus, a major metropolitan market would boost the profile of velvet art, sadly ignored, in Baldwin’s opinion.

But why Chinatown, not exactly known as a velvet-art hub?

“We were looking around, thinking, ‘Where do we want to be?’ ” Baldwin said. “The beach! So I went to Venice, and the guy wanted to rent me a wall for $5,000 a month. Crazy. Then I thought, ‘Why not Chinatown?’ Downtown L.A. is a booming place, man, like San Francisco in the Gold Rush. Everybody’s moving here.”

There were no worries that the splendors of velvet painting would get lost in translation, Baldwin said, since this genre has always transcended borders. It was huge in Hawaii and French Polynesia in the early to mid-20th century, thrived overseas during the Vietnam conflict and long has been the top (OK, maybe the second-largest) import crossing the border from Mexico. To broaden the museum’s cultural cachet, Baldwin put up signs in his front window in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

The response, he said, has been gratifying. He said Vietnam veterans are particularly enamored.

“Guys (in Vietnam) would go to the Philippines on R-and-R, buy velvet and ship them back home,” he said. “Look at this one: It’s a GI in full camo.”

The painting is arresting. It shows a soldier tying himself off with a red rubber rope and preparing to plunge a syringe into the crook of his elbow.

“I guess they saw us as heroin-fueled crazy people bent on killing people,” Baldwin said.

Well, that’s one interpretation. Most of the velvet art eschews overt political messages in favor of the sensual or celebrity worship. But one wing is dedicated to African Americans.

“Here’s Bobby Seale getting ready for court in the Chicago 7, 8, 6, whatever, trial,” he said. “Tupac is very big. And I had to get Barry (White, soul singer) done after he died. And, of course, here’s Martin Luther King. He’s in velvet in everybody’s house.”

Perhaps the most velvety personage in the world is Elvis Presley, and Baldwin has dedicated an entire hallway to the King. That hallway leads to the bathroom, where, yes, there are velvet paintings of people “on the pot,” from Frank Zappa to matadors. Over the toilet? A 4-foot full-frontal portrait of Anderson Cooper in nothing but a G-string.

Why? Who knows and who cares. You won’t see that in the Louvre.