Road food for thought

“I was soon labeled a photorealist. I was disturbed a bit by the label,” says painter John Baeder in notes accompanying his retrospective, Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way. Ironic, since the Morris Museum of Art-curated show (now mounted at the Asheville Art Museum) includes nearly four decades of diners painted in such minute detail that viewers could select a meal from Baeder’s precisely rendered specials boards.

Order up: John Baeder’s “Blue Beacon” is just one in a career of works examining the life and decline of America’s iconic roadside diners.

“I just wanted to be a painter,” the artist continues. “I didn’t use all the mechanical tools, fuzzy backgrounds, extra-sharp foregrounds and slick paint. I just went ahead and painted what I believed in.”

Tapping into that vision means Baeder freely rearranges elements in his paintings in service of his story line: The demise of the American diner. Asheville Art Museum’s adult -programs manager Nancy Sokolove points to paintings like “Al Mac’s Diner,” to which he’s added the flourish of a menacingly indigo sky. It’s unlikely that Baeder (who works from old postcards and pictures he shoots on the road) found a corporate postcard depicting such stormy conditions or stood outside in nasty weather to capture the scene. Instead, Sokolove suggests, he tweaked the landscape to convey the uncertain future of diner culture.

“He sees himself as a preservationist,” explains Asheville Art Museum curator Frank Thomson.

A worthy cause, but—as Thomson puts it, motioning toward Baeder’s landscape of a North Carolina laundromat—“Are we really ready to start worrying about the fate of independent dry cleaners?”

Perhaps it’s easier for Baeder to romanticize diners since he rarely steps inside them; at least he doesn’t invite the viewer along with him. Although the show’s title includes the phrase “good eats,” there is almost no food depicted in any of his paintings.

Still, Baeder’s dedication to iconic Americana has won him many fans who share a similar fondness for Burma Shave ads, Coca-Cola and Betty Grable. But, Thomson says, Baeder’s talent distinguishes his work from the celebratory tchotchkes sold along Route 66.

“It would be easy to go over the line to cutesy kitsch nostalgia, but he doesn’t quite cross it,” Thomson says. “There are certain things you can do in painting that you can’t do in a photograph.”

He points toward a rare interior scene gleaming with the familiar shine of mid-20th century chrome. “I guarantee if you went to a master class on watercolor and said ‘Teach me how to paint chrome,’ they’d say ‘Here’s your money back.’ The quality is amazing.”

Baeder’s paintings are awash in detail, and the retrospective suggests he’s become more of a miniaturist with each passing year. His early works focused on the architectural elements of diners, but his obsession with details surrounding the eateries began overtaking his paintings by 1972, when he completed the grayscale “Street Scene, Klamath, California.” The scene’s showcased diner shares the large canvas with cars, redwood trees and a bus breaking for lunch by the side of the road.

In “Orange Circle Diner,” completed in 1996, Baeder stopped just short of depicting the cars on leaflets stuffed in an Auto Shopper distribution box situated outside the diner’s front door. Among the painting’s overwhelming number of textual details, the viewer can easily discern the Orange Circle’s address, hours and asking price for a torta.

While Baeder might believe in nostalgia, his faith is shaken when it comes to his medium. Photorealism, like yoga and vegetarianism, took a turn for the kook in the 1970s as overzealous acolytes misinterpreted its central tenets. According to Louis K. Meisel, who coined the term “photorealism” in 1968, practitioners of the craft must “use the camera to gather information,” “use a mechanical or semi-mechanical means to transfer the information to the canvas,” and “have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic.”

All too often, amateur artists ignored the final requirement, focusing on faithful tracing rather than creating. Self-identified photorealists, many of whom successfully hawked their wares at upscale street fairs, would project slides onto their canvases and meticulously copy the lines.

Baeder is clearly disturbed with this “presto painting” technique, though Sokolove dismisses his efforts to distance himself from the movement. “Allegedly he’s not comfortable with it, but every time I read anything about him, he’s called a photorealist,” she says. “He does use photos, but he also uses artistic license.”

In fact, the museum chose to host the Baeder show partly because it “hadn’t had a photorealist in quite awhile,” Sokolove says.

“It’s been great so far,” she adds. “People definitely respond to this technique. They love this exhibition.”

what: Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way: A Retrospective of Paintings by John Baeder
what: A career-spanning collection depicting roadside architecture.
where: Asheville Art Museum
when: Through Sunday, Oct. 26 ($6 adults, $5 students and seniors. www.ashevilleart.org or 253-3227)

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