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Trove of taco belles

John Baeder's new paintings showcase his fascination with the 'mobile eatery.'

June 26, 2003|Jessica Hundley | Special to the Times

John BAEDER loves tacos. More specifically, fish tacos from the L.A. restaurant Chabelita.

"They're the best in town," he says, sitting in the early-morning sun outside the Western Avenue establishment with a satisfied smile. "And just look at that truck."

Baeder pauses and looks over at one of Chabelita's mobile taco trucks parked outside. Its sides are decorated with a colorful mural featuring a young mermaid offering up a plate of ceviche. Steel quilting bolted along the truck's bottom glistens in the sun.

"Look at all that shimmering," he says. "It's beautiful, and it's a real challenge to paint."

But the Tennessee-based artist likes a challenge. With a wild head of gray hair, boundless enthusiasm for pop culture obscurity and a fondness for less-than-subtle Hawaiian print shirts (today's choice features hot peppers, befitting the occasion), he has spent the last few years photographing the taco trucks of Los Angeles.

These photos eventually provided the inspiration for "L.A. Taco Trucks," the title of his one-man watercolor show at Paul Kopeikin Gallery.

"Basically, I've always been fascinated with the mobile eatery," says Baeder, "the horse-drawn lunch wagons which served the working-class communities in smaller towns, the eateries which took off their wheels and grew larger and eventually became diners."

His gift, it seems, has been to find inspiration in the ordinary. He first gained recognition in the art community of the mid-70s with his highly detailed diner paintings, works that immortalized -- in vivid watercolors and oils -- these endangered gems of forgotten Americana. Baeder's paintings were eventually compiled into a 1978 book, titled "Diners," which was revised in 1996.

With his embrace of pop culture iconography and his eye for detail, the artist soon found himself at the forefront of the burgeoning Photorealism Movement, a school of painting that took photographs as a point of departure in an attempt to create precisely rendered imagery.

For Kopeikin, Baeder's work was a good match for the transition his gallery is undergoing.

"We had been moving from just showing photography to showing painting as well," Kopeikin says. "A show by a prominent photorealist seemed like a perfect fit. Plus, I was in love with the subject matter."

The technique has served the artist well, but he is careful to point out that although his photography inspires his artwork, it never dictates it.

"I don't know about the other photorealists," he says, "but for me, photography works as a kind of visual note, a starting point that I work off of. I take them back home to my studio and use them as inspiration."

As a child, he traveled extensively throughout the South and Midwest, gaining a fondness for the American landscape that would make an indelible mark on his work. Those early memories are reflected in his paintings by a kind of sweet nostalgia, an artistic attempt to capture imagery that has become symbolic of simpler times.

Over the years, a fascination with diner architecture would grow to include everything from ice cream trucks to hot dog trucks.

Then he began making pilgrimages to small towns and big cities across the United States in search of suitable subject matter, a process of discovery that became almost as enjoyable as the painting itself.

"I love to travel, to drive around. It's like the museum of the streets. It's incredible," he says, making a sweeping gesture across Western Avenue to prove his point. "I remember we were driving down Central once, and all of a sudden this beautiful ice cream truck came out of nowhere. I said, 'Follow that truck,' so we followed it, and it led us to a huge parking lot just filled with ice cream trucks -- it was amazing!"

Baeder has been photographing and eating at the city's vast fleet of taco trucks for years. He finds himself drawn to certain vehicles in particular, ones with a bit of handmade flash and glitz, like the truck parked outside Chabelita.

"The taco truck is a logical extension of everything I've done before, really," he says. "I used to come out here every year or so and collect photos of them. This is folk art. Each truck has its own personality. Taco trucks are indigenous to the culture here, and like the ice cream truck, they're very expressive and rich, and representative of Latin culture."

At Paul Kopeikin Gallery, Baeder's work manages to elevate these staples of the L.A. streets into vivid and remarkably detailed works of art. His trucks stand under freeway overpasses, among bustling urban neighborhoods and on abandoned industrial street corners, posing for the canvas like metallic Mona Lisas.

The paintings transform the lowly vehicles into something more, a vibrant glorification of the commonplace. He is enamored with anything that represents a raw, homegrown creativity; happily obsessed with capturing the art of the day to day.

"I really look at myself as a preservationist more than a painter," he says. "My real goal is to preserve a part of a culture that exists now and existed then and is changing and evolving through time. That's more important to me than anything. I execute that image, and I have fun at it."

*

John Baeder's' L.A. Taco Trucks'

Where: Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd.,

Los Angeles

Ends: July 5

Info: (323) 937-0765

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