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May 31 - June 28, 2003 at Paul Kopeikin Gallery, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

“9th Street Sea Food,”
2003, watercolor.

“Green Van with Mamacita,”
2003, watercolor.

“Chinese Marisco,”
2003, watercolor.

“Tacos Oaxaca,”
2003, watercolor.
Photo-realism is difficult enough to achieve with oil paints and acrylics. Veteran artist John Baeder, with a precise hand and subtle shading, achieves photographic realism with watercolor. In Baeder's hands, it's a stunning visual feat. He first photographs the subjects that interest him and then paints them with a delicate control that is arresting.

Baeder has a definite take on the subject matter that moves him. In this case it's L.A. Taco Trucks, which is the title of the exhibit. “Taco trucks, and other traveling food service vehicles (hot dog, hamburger, ice cream, catering, so forth) have always enamored me," writes Baeder. "On a very basic level, they represent the old horse drawn lunch wagon that roamed the streets." Baeder points out that the horse drawn lunch wagon grew larger and evolved into the dining cars which were eventually known as "diners."

For thirty years Baeder painted old diners. These watercolor paintings of diners were collected in a book, Diners, published by Abrams in 1978 and reissued in expanded form in 1996. For the last 13 years Baeder has been taking photographs of taco trucks on his visits to Los Angeles. "Latino culture, with it's passionate breadth and all its colorful expression, is joyfully applied to their individual trucks--some with subtle markings, others with exuberant paintings and lettering applications," says Baeder, who finds this a particular form of folk art.

Baeder's watercolors of taco trucks are infested with detail. Judging from the light, it always seems to be high noon or lunchtime, though usually no people are present. The idiosyncratically festooned taco trucks inhabit the impersonal urban environments like anomalous creatures that took a wrong turn. Harsh light from the sun overhead transfixes the trucks for our examination, their shadows huddling beneath them. The very absence of people in these images lends an implicitly human dimension to the taco trucks themselves.

So precise is Baeder's hand that even the wear and tear on the truck is evident in the painting titled Chinese Marisco. A worn cardboard box leaning against the truck on the ground serves as a makeshift trash bin. A battered pink and white truck in the painting Ice Cream Tarde is seen before a shuttered International Toy Mart, the monolithic architectural structure gradually rising high into the air with steel beams looming. The loopy ice cream truck humanizes the industrial environment.

There are a couple of faceless inhabitants dimly shown inside a crudely painted truck in the watercolor Green Van with Mamacita. The green van appears to be double-parked in front of a playground in the background circumscribed by a chain link fence, but no children are evident. In 9th Street Sea Food a large chromium-sided taco truck seems to be conversing with a bronze colored van in front of the downtown urban landscape set in a cloudless sky.

Another effect the blazing noontide light has in Baeder's watercolors is to arrest their subjects in historical time for our clinical examination. This is quite fitting for visual documents such as Baeder's which capture an evanescent social culture. The artist has become an archeologist and he declares as much as he roams the streets of Los Angeles.

"I save these vehicles through the painting medium," says Baeder, "as I have done with literally hundreds of diners." He characterizes the taco truck as "an indigenous addition" to the urban landscape of Los Angeles. His paintings indeed capture the transient cultural moment for posterity.