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 flamboyant 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 moth-eaten). "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-of-town people, so we decided to start looking around L.A."
In 2013, Velveteria opened its doors in Chinatown, where for a $10 admission 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."
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Where: 711 New High St., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays