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A feel for velvet

March 04, 2004|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

Velvet painting's stature in the art world is akin to that of creamed corn in the province of fine cuisine.

Although artists have been putting paint to fuzzy fabric since the 14th century, velvet painting's reputation is understandably weighed down by the volume of curio Elvises and crying clowns sold inexpensively at the Mexican border alongside porcelain burros and ashtrays shaped like Texas.

Curator Christina Ochoa, who organized the show "Contemporary Velvet Painting," which opened Saturday at the Patricia Correia Gallery, hopes to return some respectability to the maligned medium. "It's become this passion of mine," she says. As in all art forms, she says, there is good and bad. Canvas doesn't inevitably grow impressionistic flowers, velvet doesn't have to be a backdrop to canine poker.

There's nary an Elvis among the 28 pieces in the show. Among the seven artists represented are Sandow Birk and Claudia Parducci, whose reputations lend credibility to the form, Ochoa says. But they aren't the first fine artists to use velvet canvases. Edgar Leeteg, known as the father of velvet painting, created more than 1,000 works from 1933 to 1953, Ochoa says. (Also called the American Gauguin, he's best known for his paintings of Tahitian women.) Later, Peter Alexander and Julian Schnabel did notable work on velvet, a highly unforgiving medium in which dry-brush application is the norm.

Ochoa, the gallery and visual arts director at Self-Help Graphics & Art in East Los Angeles, was first drawn to the medium by Birk's painting "L.A. Drive By." She began to research velvet art, and in 2002 organized a group show called "Black Velvet Kruise," presented at the Self-Help gallery and in Tijuana.

Birk, best known for his contemporized Dante's Inferno and paintings of a fictitious war between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has five pieces in this show. He works mostly in other media, but his first solo exhibitions in the late 1980s were velvet paintings.

A few years out of the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, he was painting images inspired by a four-year surfing expedition through Latin America. "It occurred to me that if I was going to paint pictures of Latin America, maybe I should paint them in a Latin American sort of way. To me, that was Mexican velvet painting."

He was working at the Earl McGrath Gallery at the time, painting walls, hammering nails, answering the telephone. He hounded McGrath for a show of his velvets. "He said, 'That's ridiculous. Yeah, I'll give you a show someday.' Then he winked," Birk recalls.

A year went by, and McGrath kept winking. Then one day the telephone rang, and Birk was the only person in the gallery. It was a person calling from a publication to get the gallery's exhibition listings. Birk provided information about two upcoming shows then added, "Sandow Birk, Black Velvet Paintings."

"Earl thought it was so funny he gave me a show," Birk says. "He said the work wouldn't sell, so he gave another artist a show in another room, and that was going to be the moneymaker." But Birk's work did sell. A year later, McGrath gave him another show. His new work is made up of cityscapes, including night scenes of the liquor store across the street from his Long Beach studio and a gas station a few blocks away.

"Everyone sort of connects it with kitsch stuff and tourists and bad taste," he says. "Their first reaction is, 'Why would you want to do that?' But once they look at it, they see you can do serious paintings on velvet."

Gallery owner Patricia Correia is a convert. She was initially attracted to the idea of pop icons immortalized on velvet, but has been surprised by velvet painting's history, and its evolution. "Is it going to infiltrate into the big art world? That's hard to say," Correia says. "I don't think we're going to have any big movement in velvet painting, but there are artists, some of them museum collected, that are doing beautiful work."

Parducci, whose husband, Peter Alexander, has a velvet painting in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, plays off its reputation with a sense of humor. She has created a series of five pieces, taking digital images of vintage frames, manipulating them to create a realistic sense of depth. She silk screens the frames onto the velvet, and within them she paints images based on portraits by John Singer Sargent and Anthony van Dyck.

"It's referencing a lot of different kinds of gaudiness, the gaudiness of velvet painting and the gaudiness of the frames," she says. "But all those gaudy things are also incredibly sensuous and beautiful and seductive."

The irony is that there's little velvet kitsch being produced anymore. Daniel Ponce Marquez, who has two paintings in the show, grew up on the border in Ciudad Juarez, where as a kid he sold 10 Elvis paintings a day for $3 each. Today few artists bother. "Most of them don't live as painters anymore," he says. "They have to do different jobs to survive."


`Contemporary Velvet Paintings'

Who: Sandow Birk, Chuy c/s,

Mary Fleener, Laura Hazlett, Daniel Ponce Marquez, Claudia Parducci and Vincent Valdez

Where: Patricia Correia Gallery, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave. E2, Santa Monica

When: Tuesdays through Fridays,

10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Ends: March 27

Contact: (310) 264-1760 or

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