Through May 29 at Cumberland Gallery
4107 Hillsboro Circle
John Baeder describes himself as "a preservationist who just happens to work in paint." What he preserves are the artifacts of American roadside culturesigns and storefronts, gas stations and motels, and most of all, eateriesthat flourished in the pre-interstate age.
It was a time when the nation's love affair with the automobile flowered, fostered by the paving of the old farm-to-market roads beginning in the 1920s. As Chester Liebs points out in Main Street to Miracle Mile, the margins of these increasingly well-traveled roadswhere land prices were inexpensive in comparison to the citywere the perfect place for small-scale entrepreneurs to set up shop and capitalize on our urge to drive. But in a windshield survey, restaurateurs realized, the image of the eating place was as important as the quality of the food. The restaurant exterior, and its all important signage, needed to send a message quickly picked up by the desired class of patronsfactory workers or families, white collars or women shoppersto slow down-stop-buy.
Baeder has slowed down, stopped and bought all across the country. The subject of his art is this midperiod in the commercialization of the American landscapesomewhere between Main Street and Miracle Mile. He has visually preserved its roadside architecture in postcards and photographs and paintings, published in Diners (1978; revised and updated 1995), Gas, Food, and Lodging (1982) and Sign Language: Street Signs as Folk Art (1996).
Ten watercolors by Baeder currently on exhibit at Cumberland Gallery bring the art of the road on home. Such paintings as "Wantaburger," "Jaco's Pizza" and "Mr. Pig" are loving reminders of a Nashville thatexcept for "Brown's Diner"no longer exists. These buildings once stood along the waysides of the pikesCharlotte and Dickerson, Hillsboro and Murfreesborothe historic traces for the middle and long distance traveler. At the time Baeder first photographed them, the structures were remnants of a roadside culture of local character now obliterated by the chain stores and fast food franchises of Anywhere, USA.
Baeder's preservationist impulse focuses on the more democratic emporiums, rather than those catering to the bourgeoisie. And, like any good archaeologist, he has assembled a representative collection: the snack wagon in "Creamy Rich," the eat-in-your-car drive-up in "Mac's Bar-B-Q" and, of course, the diner in "Loftis Lunch"Baeder's specialty. He also has examples of discarded vehicles turned eating establishments: the trolley car of "Brown's Diner" and the train car of "Boxcar Willie's," both popular forms of adaptive reuse for the cash poor food merchant in the '20s and '30s. Iconic signage gets its due with "Bar-B-Cutie," whose logo recalls the theme-dressed car hop, and a gaggle of "Big Boys," the chubby, well-scrubbed kids who signaled family-friendly fare. But the humble forms of the buildings themselves also served as speed-reading to passersby, easily apprehended indicators of limited menus featuring low-cost food, simply and quickly served.
Baeder says these diners and drive-ins "speak" to him because of their intimacy and unpretentiousnessand their familial associations. "They're very nurturing kinds of places, horizontal, earth-hugging in form, and the grill is the hearth. You know when you enter that you're going to be treated like family and served family food." Such qualities stand in stark contrast to today's fast food "industry," with its mass-produced food assembly line, its rigid standardization of menus and service. "A diner says 'safe' to me," Baeder explains. "A McDonald's says that change is constant."
Baeder's technique is itself expressive of his quest to preserve. In "Loftis Lunch," for example, time stops on a day in late fall, and the modest dignity of this handmade diner that served homemade food is revealed. The monochromatic palettesubtle gradations of whites and grays, with a touch of brighter pigment in the gold of the remaining leaves and the crimson of a Coke signmatches the elegiac mood.
In her studies of the Luminist movement of the 19th century, art historian Barbara Novak points out that in a painting, a visible stroke on the surface reminds us that we are seeing the painting of an object, not the object itself. The illusion is lifted. A visible gesture by the painter also implies an action in time that has a sound.
"The reminder of the actual process of painting recalls to us the agent of the process, the painter," Novak writes in American Light. "It denotes not only the artist's activity, but the artist's presence. That presence introduces us to a self, who, as it were, stands between the image seen and the spectator."
In Baeder's art, the obvious individual paint stroke is suppressed. Rather, his work is composed of minute modulations of color which negate the idea of paint and produce sharp clarifications of objective form. The artist's hand is all but invisible, even when the work is viewed up close. The absence of stroke also heightens the textural properties of the object: the shine of metal, the light flickering on clapboards, the diminutive identities of leaves on a tree or pebbles in a parking lot. The anonymity or selflessness of the surface erases both artist and spectator. What is left is the thing itselfthe diner preservedin the silence of time stilled.
Of the watercolors in the Cumberland show, Baeder notes: "I'm working larger now. I like the amount of information I can put down at this scale." The quest to put down as much information as possible is a characteristic of the photo-realist school to which Baeder undoubtedly belongs. But his work lacks the slickness, the neutrality to the point of banality, of much photo-realist painting. His approach is instead lyrical and loving, with an intensity typically reserved for portraits of the human face.
When Baeder decided to leave the harried world of New York advertising at the end of the 1970s, he says he chose Nashville for his new home because it reminded him of the Atlanta of his childhood. "Atlanta in the '40s and '50s was serene, pleasant, polite. In 1979, when I first visited Nashville, the ease of the place reminded me of that Atlanta."
Neither place has that sense of ease today. But then Baeder's art, echoing the long tradition of American landscape painting, is about visions of things missing or about to be. The two-dimensional structures he builds on canvas and paper provide a figurative shelter for his thoughts and emotions that evoke corresponding vibrations of memory in all of us.
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