The Velveteria, the world's largest repository of velvet paintings, became something of a counterculture tourist attraction when it opened in Portland in 2005. The museum, which has relocated to Los Angeles, celebrates a garish aesthetic of bright paint on dark velvet that is as synonymous with 60s-era rebellion as Easy Rider and weed.
The populist appeal of this cheap art form—with subjects that range from Captain Kirk and John F. Kennedy to Jesus and Timothy Leary—continues to inspire those who live outside the bounds of "good taste," and the Velveteria is one of the few places dedicated to this pop phenomenon.
Owners and operators Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin created their shrine to the art form as a means of combating what they saw as the conformity of the Pacific Northwest.
Carl, a Los Angeles native and gangly jumble of hippie profundity, said he felt stifled by things that a different type of person might find charming about Portland.
"Nobody gets up and does anything before two in the afternoon. So it’s very frustrating if you’re a Californian, you know, upsetter or go-getter, trendsetter, revolutionary, outlaw, whatever the hell we are. There’s kind of that spirit in Portland, but it’s very dull and muted," he said during my recent visit to the new Los Angeles location.
From left: Store clerk Jaclyn Baird, Carl Baldwin, Caren Anderson
Finally sick of the Portland scene, Carl and Caren packed up six trucks full of paintings, drove everything down to California, and spent four years preparing to open their new location, in Chinatown, which has been up and running since December.
Before we could begin my tour, Carl had to change into a very noticeable, very snug pair of red pants he purchased from a Palm Springs thrift store so that I could get the full experience of his monument to kitsch. The museum is divided into discrete sections that include a Kennedy shrine, a Black Power area, and the requisite naked-lady room.
VICE: I assume all six trucks worth of paintings are not in here?
Caren Anderson: There are about 500 paintings here. We have about 2,000 in total. It’s insane.
There’s something more natural about it because it’s not high art, because it’s not lofty and unapproachable or inaccessible. It’s right there, and anyone can have this stuff.
Caren: It’s really poignant, you’ll see.
Carl Baldwin: This is our newest section. We call it the California Kings and Queens, the people that framed our mentality here in California and continue to do so today. We have Dallas Raines from Channel 7 with his Live Mega Doppler 7000.
Carl: And we have Harvey Levin from TMZ and Sam Rubin from Channel 5.
I hopefully one day will make it up on this wall. If I’m lucky.
Caren: If you get on velvet, it’s a big deal.
So I’m sure that there's a lot of Kennedy velvets. What is the market for a Kennedy velvet? Specifically an old one from the 1960s?
Caren: The problem is, there is too much of a market. He was done a lot in velvet because he died tragically. People that die tragically, like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, they get on velvet.
Caren: And also Martin Luther King and Malcolm X got on velvet a lot.
Carl: So there’s a lot of the Black Power culture of the 60s. Like the Black Panthers.
Carl: Haven’t seen Kanye, haven’t seen him yet.
Caren: You know it’s funny what gets on velvet. These guys who produce the stuff in Mexico figure out what’s going to sell.
Carl: You had to be very compelling and intelligent to get on velvet too. It had to be somebody who was compelling enough to make a difference that people noticed.
It seems that the figure had to be in some way countercultural or tragic.
Carl: Well, it was underground art that the younger people were buying, and the older people just did not like this stuff. Like Caren's parents, they hated it.
Caren: I couldn’t have a Hendrix poster in my bedroom. I wanted one so bad. I mean, I had my little record player quietly playing Bob Dylan.
Carl: A strong Black man’s the most scary thing in America.
Why are there so many velvets depicting the Vietnam War?
Carl: Soldiers in Vietnam and Korea would buy these paintings that described army life or life in the war, the miseries of it, backed on balsa wood, and they’d send them back to their parents or their wives.
So were there people making them in Southeast Asia?
Carl: They'd get these painted in the Philippines or Korea, roll them up, put them in their duffel bags, and bring them back home from the war. You’ll see in the naked-lady room that they often painted the Playboy centerfolds and brought those home too. Young men in their late teens and early 20s, they're buying naked ladies.
I imagine there isn't a large market for Nixon paintings.
Caren: You know, we found that in Tijuana and we said that we got to get it. It was a one-time commitment.
Carl: We found Nixon. We found Reagan. We found the Hale-Bopp cult leader, Marhsall Applewhite, and Jack Kevorkian all together.
That should be its own section.
Carl: That’s a foursome if you’ve ever had one, you know.
OK, what's this?
Carl: This is our unicorn birthing center, featuring the unicorn comb-over and various versions of unicorns and their frolicking ways.
And is this the infamous naked-lady room. I've got to check it out, just for, you know, research purposes.
Caren: Sure, just like you read the articles, right?
So is this maybe one of the more popular styles?
Carl: This is a show-stopping room, heart-stopping room, and people come out happy. I just kind of leave them in here.
Caren: Usually we're out in the front. We used to be able to see them watch it, but you know we like to let them have their private time and look at them.
Oh, the black-light room. I hope I don’t have any stains on my clothes.
Carl: Yeah, see how your detergent’s doing. See how your dentist is doing too.
I’m not opening my mouth.
Carl: The devils are great on black light; they really pop out. Everything just comes to life.
We made our way back into the lobby and said our goodbyes.
It’s interesting that it runs the gamut from stuff like dogs playing poker to something as bleak as a soldier shooting heroin.
Carl: Well, the whole experience, human experience, is on velvet, and that’s what makes it so compelling to us and, really, the greatest art in the world.
Caren: We’ve had visitors from all over the world, and they’re like, "You know, I’ve never seen anything like it."
Carl: We’ve had blind people come in.
They touch them?
Carl: They get to feel the paintings and, you know, really have a good time. We had a guy who came in from Japan, didn’t speak a word of English, but all of a sudden we started talking about stuff. And then we had paintings of wrestlers, so all the sudden we’re talking about wrestling.
Caren: Gesticulating, yeah.
Carl: Hulk Hogan brought us together.
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