He stands in the parlor of his West Chelsea townhouse, looking out at the front yard where he’s planted root balls his mother sends him by mail. “When I was a kid growing up in Kentucky, my mom and I used to walk around collecting wildflowers from the fields that were about to be strip-mined,” recalls painter Kevin Baker, who seems to have taken on an utterly unthinkable, very not-New York project: bringing back flowers as a vital artistic subject matter for the young downtown art scene.
Baker’s flora-filled paintings are really more like collages. His canvases are made up of the garishly bright, flower-patterned oilcloths that decorated tables in his hometown of Central City, just southwest of Louisville. The 30-year-old artist sees these fabrics as an extension of himself. “I was this Kentucky boy raised in a community where people think about bluegrass, big trucks, deer hunting, and cheap beer,” he says. On top of the oilcloths, Baker applies paint to draw layered composites of flowers, while muting or embellishing the patterns underneath. In a way, he strip-mines the tablecloths for his own poetic rendition.
New York can be a hostile place for romantics, but Baker’s work has met uncharacteristic acceptance. His transformation of generic kitsch into transcendent beauty seems to click with New York hipsters. Last spring, he was in a group show that mixed emerging artists with icons like Ed Ruscha and Francesco Clemente. And in September, his paintings will appear at Brooklyn’s Rush Arts Gallery, a bastion of street cred.
Photos: Kevin Baker at his studio in New York, April 2009. Shirt: Trussardi. T-shirt (customized): A/X. Jeans:Diesel. Watch:Cartier. Necklace and bracelet: Scosha. Grooming products: Paul Mitchell, including Thicken Up. Fragrance: Trussardi Essenza del Tempo. | Styling: Miguel Enamorado. Grooming: Mary Douglas/The Wall Group. Passion Fruit, 2009; Saline, 2007; Purple Haze, 2009.