I Love You Baby was a Houston art collective that came together in 1992 as three friends working together and collaborating on artworks—Paul Kremer, Rodney Chinelliot and Will Bentsen. The name “I Love You Baby” was adopted in 2002. The group then expanded to include Chris Olivier and Dale Stewart and started meeting weekly at Commerce Street Art Warehouse (CSAW). Occasional collaborators included Mark Flood, Phillip Kremer, Seth Mittag and Jack Massing, among others. This past April 2, the surviving members (Dale Stewart committed suicide in 2009) opened three retrospective shows at three different locations: G Gallery, GalleryHOMELAND and Cardoza Gallery. The shows had a collective title: We’ve Made a Huge Mistake.
Why mount a three-part retrospective now? I asked Paul Kremer about that and he told me, “My brother Phillip Kremer and Rodney Chinelliott joked about having an ILYB show at Wayne’s place [G Spot Gallery] without telling the rest of us. At the same time Paul Middendorf [GalleryHOMELAND] asked Bill Willis if he knew us and thought we might want to do something. We talked and decided it would be a great excuse to archive all the work we had left. And, if two shows, why not three, and asked Pablo Cardoza if he was game for a one night show. which thankfully he was.”
I first became aware of I Love You Baby in July, 2009. I saw them in a video shown at the Frenetic Theater by Skeezer Stinkfist. I believe the movie was from 2005. It was a disjointed collage of images from the late, lamented CSAW, and it included scenes from a completely demented performance by ILYB. The group had set up a fake office at CSAW and staged a “Christmas party“ that quickly spirals out of control. It was called Office Christmas Party, and the video showed a group of drunken office drones destroying their office in alcohol-fueled frenzy. I asked them about it later and they told me that they had filled a water cooler with Bombay Sapphire gin.
Then a few days later, I saw an exhibit of paintings and other artwork by the ILYB collective at the (now defunct) Joanna gallery. At that time, I saw ILYB as a group of “anarchic art punks.” The group had existed until 2008, at which time CSAW ceased to exist and all the artists were evicted. ILYB member Dale Stewart wrote an inflammatory post-mortem of CSAW on Glasstire, accusing former CSAW President and Treasurer Maggi Battalino of embezzlement. A year later, Stewart committed suicide in Menil Park.
Each venue in the current retrospective had a different flavor. G Gallery was a huge collage of unstretched canvases, which Paul Kremer told me was how they hung their first show at CSAW in 2002. The effect was electrifying. Art was crammed in nearly every possible surface, including the floor—one painting was laid on the floor of a narrow hallway, inviting viewers to walk on it.
The work had shared authorship. Many of the pieces were signed “Dale,” but that seems to have been an in-joke among the group. There was no way to think about the works except as a collective effort by several people. There was no checklist—If you wanted to buy a piece, the price was determined by the height plus the width in inches times 15.
The paintings consisted of images, collaged elements, vigorous painted marks and words. Sometimes the words are just juvenile jokes, like “Conway Titty.” Sometimes the words are painted as fancy display type, as in Wells Fargo Rules. But usually the words are slapped up haphazardly.
As I was looking at their work, I was thinking of curator Marcia Tucker, who coined the term “bad painting” for a show she curated in 1978 at the New Museum. This exhibit marked the return of painting after a period of “exile” (as Thomas McEvilley put it). The show included William Copley (CPLY), Neil Jenny, William Wegman and Houston’s own Earl Staley, among many others. In the catalog, Tucker wrote:
It is figurative work that defies, either deliberately or by virtue of disinterest, the classic canons of good taste, draftsmanship, acceptable sources material, rendering, or illusionistic representation. In other words, this is work that avoids the conventions of high art, either in terms of traditional art history or very recent taste of fashion.
The weight of art history certainly never pressed very hard on the members of I Love You Baby. I think that the alcohol-fueled collaborations weren’t about making “good” art—they were about doing something interesting and fun together.
The second show at GalleryHOMELAND reproduced a moment in 2004 when ILYB all got together to draw pictures of the singer Barry Manilow. Paul Kremer found a drawing of Manilow online and got the members of the group to each draw their own versions of it. Their drawings, along with blow-ups of an email conversation that Paul Kremer subsequently had with the original artist, were pinned up on the walls. The ILYB drawings had varying levels of commitment and polish (Will Bentsen told me he was massively hungover the day they drew them). One managed to look more like Hilary Clinton than Barry Manilow.
Also included were photos of the collective drawing Barry.
In addition to this series of drawings, a table was set up in the middle of the gallery, covered with reams of computer paper and small pencils so that audience members could get in on the Barry Manilow drawing action. These audience-created Manilows were hung in the gallery at the end of the night.
The show had a semi-rock-and-roll aspect. A smoke machine occasionally blasted into the small GalleryHOMELAND space. The machine was activated by a foot-switch—step on the switch and the smoke poured out. It gave the room an eerie, crepuscular feeling. Perhaps that was to evoke a nostalgic feeling for the 2004 original drawing event. At one point, someone realized that you could set the smoke machine on top of the foot switch to produce continuous, dense stream of smoke, which then filled the gallery.
The best part of this show was the email exchange that Kremer had with Jeannine Van Eyken, the artist of the original Barry Manilow drawing that the group copied. Kremer explained the project to Van Eyken, who was a 60-year old Belgian Manilow fan. What I liked about their conversation was the respect Kremer showed for her (given the obvious irony of the original project—I suspect ILYB wasn’t actually composed of a bunch of serious Barry Manilow fans), his willingness to explain the odd activities of the ILYB collective, and how game she was.
The last venue was a one-night-only show at Cardoza Gallery. It was most like a standard art show—paintings, photos and sculpture scattered around with plenty of white space in between. It had some of the best work. You could see how ILYB recycled their own work. For instance, the Cardoza show included a photo of a sign they made (“HEY YOU, IN THE RED TRUCK, SHAVE YOUR MUSTACHE.”) placed in a meat section of a supermarket. The red sign against the red meat looked just right.
But that wasn’t the end for that sign. They made it part of a sculpture that was in the show as well.
ILYB’s socially unacceptable side was on view in several of the artworks here. Marcus Harvey’s precedent or no, you absolutely had to be a punk to paint “I Heart Andrea Yates” on a painting (Andrea Yates was a mentally ill woman who murdered her four young children during a severe psychotic episode in 2001).
In the back room of Cardoza Gallery, a slide projector was running through a loop of hundreds of photos of the activities of the collective over the years.
With the tragic exception of Dale Stewart, the various member of I love You Baby have continued their artistic vocations. Paul Kremer has primarily been painting tasteful geometric abstractions lately—the opposite in most ways from the anarchic spirit of ILYB. But he is best known for a series of Photoshop creations called Great Art in Ugly Rooms. His brother Phillip Kremer recently got national notice for being banned from Instagram for his bizarre portraits of political celebrities. Will Bentsen’s art, which he describes as “stuff I make out of stuff other people have made” has a hint of the old ILYB, but feels more concerned with symmetry and composition than the ILYB work. Rodney Chinelliot’s main creative outlet these days seems to be his band Iron Skillet. Chris Olivier (aka Chris Bexar) has also been concentrating on photography and Photoshop.
I Love You Baby was a product of a particular time and place, a collective without the ideals we normally associate with collectives. It might have made more sense to call them a “club.” They anticipated similar groupings that popped up subsequently in Houston—Sketch Klubb and Sketchy Neighbors, for example. It’s reasonable to ask if ILYB wasn’t just a bunch of fun-loving party animals jamming together. The work isn’t very serious. The painting isn’t, by any conventional measure, good. Do they actually deserve three simultaneous art shows eight years after they basically gave up? That’s a hard question to answer because the art here consistently undermines any attempt to assign value to it.
I love this art. It’s abject and “stoopid,” and maybe they would have been a bit reluctant to throw all this stupidity out there if they were signing the works and taking individual credit for it. The group identity of ILYB gave them permission to display a degree of juvenile energy that as solo artists they might not have done. (And from what I can tell, while much of their solo work is funny, none of it is quite as anarchic as the ILYB collaborations.) That artistically justifies the collective identity; this work just wouldn’t exist without it.
In the process of writing this, I had several questions about specific artworks. I was hoping that the members could help me understand what ILYB was all about. The surviving founding ILYB members made a Google Doc so that they could each respond. It ended up being a good dialogue. I’m reproducing it below.
Robert Boyd: BASF looks like a quote from some classical painting, maybe?
Will Bentsen: BASF was a reference to an old tag line… “At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”
Paul Kremer: I remember Bexar bringing a load of paintings from someone who had given up being an artist and was trashing their own career. And… Bitch Ass Shit Fuck – when something is ridiculous beyond belief, and no single or common combination of curses will do.
Rodney Chinelliott: All I remember about this painting is standing there laughing at it with Mark Flood. We both really appreciated the bong and the guy looking like the lead singer of the Cramps.
Chris Bexar: Of course you would be attracted to this painting… lol. We thought the creepy “Pans” were great and we didn’t want to loose them so we painted on the two figures. The pans reminded me of the background angels in the Sistine Chapel painting “Delphic Sibyl”.
Robert Boyd: Love blind date. Who is Sophistibear actually dating here?
Will Bentsen: Not sure, but isn’t he a dapper one?
Paul Kremer: BlAnd Date – Drink Blood, maybe Sophistibear is dating Mark Flood?
Rodney Chinelliott: It actually “Blind Date / Sophistibear + Drink Nut Blood”. I think he is dating Drink Nut Blood.
Chris Bexar: I think Sophistibear is dating Skeleton head.
Robert Boyd: Are the ones signed “Dale” by Dale Stewart?
Will Bentsen: All the “Dale” signed paintings were signed by Paul… he likes painting Dale’s name in cursive and we all liked the way it looked on the paintings.
Paul Kremer: It feels to paint cursive letters. I started painting the name “Bob” over and over until Dale and I agreed his name had a better ‘flow’. Also, we thought signing Dale’s name would suggest every painting we did was painted by Dale. It’s also a good way to distinguish real ILYB paintings from the fakes.
Rodney Chinelliott: A few rarer paintings are signed “Sail”.
Chris Bexar: There are a few “Dale” signatures that are actually painted by Dale but we can’t tell the difference.
Robert Boyd: Why “chicken”?
Will Bentsen: Chicken because it looks like a chicken. Da-Kooning because of the colors and mouth. Misspelled and hyphenated because ILYB.
Paul Kremer: De Kooning’s Chickens weren’t as famous as his women.
Rodney Chinelliott: It has to do with a friend of ours Frank, who was housesitting for someone with a nice art collection. In the art collection was a Willem de Kooning piece that either was eggs or had something to do with eggs. Frank had a friend over who had actually licked the de Kooning piece and said “Hmmm…tastes like chicken.”
Chris Bexar: Cuz crossing the road…
Robert Boyd: One person at the opening said a lot of the work seemed like inside jokes a bunch of guys who always hung out together would know. Like Conway Titty, for example?
Will Bentsen: There are a few inside jokes, but “Conway Titty” like most of our paintings happened in the moment. We poke prod and riff off each other similar to jazz musicians during a jam session
Paul Kremer: ILYB had inside jokes about inside jokes… WE LICK WORD ART
Rodney Chinelliott: Someone said I looked like Conway Twitty so it ended up on the painting.
Chris Bexar: The words were always funnier if there was a twist or a jokey punch line.
Robert Boyd: “tribute” to Elvis?
Will Bentsen: Everything in the world created after August 16, 1977 is a tribute to Elvis. Elvis is, was, and will always be The King. The King Is Dead… Long Live The King.
Paul Kremer: Yeah, Long Live the Dead King.. or a tribute to Redd Kross.
Rodney Chinelliott: This was my wife’s very first guitar that her dad gave her when she was 10 or 11.
Chris Bexar: Cuz Elvis is dead so tribute!!
Robert Boyd: With the crown and general style, this looks like a deliberate Basquiat pastiche. Is it?
Will Bentsen: The crown is actually hair. The blue background is an old unfinished painting of mine and unfortunately anytime you draw with oil stick on a painting it looks like a Basquiat reference. I don’t think it was a deliberate. I see a lot of Chris Martin in there too.
Paul Kremer: Um, is that a Silver–lamé noose?
Rodney Chinelliott: This had nothing to do with Basquiat and everything to do with someone’s broken glasses.
Chris Bexar: There wasn’t very much that was deliberate about ILYB. Any time someone would try and force a direction, that direction would be diverted off rail. Yes Paul that IS a Silver-lame noose.
Robert Boyd: Was sculpture important? Or was it all mostly painting?
Will Bentsen: Yes it was. We made more paintings because it was more conducive to a group activity.
Paul Kremer: Yes, we made a bunch of sculptures. See: http://iloveyoubaby.org/2005/03_22.html
Rodney Chinelliott: Most of our painting are sculptures.
Chris Bexar: Sculpture happened in the moment from time to time and as in “Tribute to Elvis” they were one.
Robert Boyd: Head, like it. Who by?
Will Bentsen: That’s all Paul Kremer. It must have been made early on before we started sharing canvases. Or it could have been taken down before anyone else got to it.
Paul Kremer: Me, on a night we did drawings only.
Rodney Chinelliott: Paul was born with the gift of always choosing the right word. Without fail. I heard a story that Paul chose the wrong word once, but I don’t believe it.
Chris Bexar: Paul always knew how to punctuate a one word sentence… It was amazing! Nothing could make that piece better after that period.
Robert Boyd: I have no idea what to think…
Will Bentsen: Some things are better left unanswered.
Paul Kremer: Yep.
Rodney Chinelliott: This was a drawing I drew from an old 1960 Three Volume Famous Artists Course Vintage Books. I thought I would give it to ILYB and see what happens to it. Ended up where everyone was puking on everyone else. Someone painted a big dong on the horse and the words “Hung Like a Horse” which is the title of the piece.
Chris Bexar: Rodney, you weren’t supposed to answer that one.
Robert Boyd: iPod. Right on the cutting edge of culture as it was happening then.
Will Bentsen: We were and are early adopters of revolutionary technology.
Paul Kremer: What’s an iPod?
Rodney Chinelliott: This is based on Apple’s real life prototype of the iPod, scaled up for effect.
Chris Bexar: Actually Steve Jobs was in the studio that night and and and we decided that music needed light and he stole the idea and got rich off ILYB.
Robert Boyd: Another Dale painting?
Will Bentsen: That’s a fucking phenomenal painting!
Paul Kremer: Now I have no idea what to think,…
Rodney Chinelliott: This is a rare bottom left signature. This is the only Dale signature on the bottom left. Bottom and to the left. Bottom and to the left.
Chris Bexar: yes.
Robert Boyd: Was the Kong image appropriated from something else?
Will Bentsen: I believe it was a poster… Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Paul Kremer: Twas the night MC Blind showed up!
Rodney Chinelliott: Replica of a King Kong movie poster.
Chris Bexar: This is where we got the idea for angry birds. Just another ILYB idea stolen.
Robert Boyd: Who is the lucky person who got to wear that trucker hat?
Will Bentsen: That’s Rodney’s wife, Andrea.
Paul Kremer: Andrea Chineliott, the brains behind ILYB’s brawn.
Rodney Chinelliott: My wife and best friend. Mel Chin’s niece.
Chris Bexar: Andrea is our Lone Star, without her we are nothing.
Robert Boyd: This made me laugh. What’s the origin?
Will Bentsen: I believe it was it was a conversation between Rodney & Paul.
Paul Kremer: Rodney and I were stuck in Traffic. Rodney asked if I’ve ever noticed that most people who drive red trucks have mustaches. The next 10 red trucks had mustached drivers. I suggested that we should blanket the city with protest signs.
Rodney Chinelliott: I was on my way to ILYB and was tailgated by a man in red truck and a moustache. Then in the car with Paul I pointed out to him how everybody in a red truck has a moustache. Paul then successfully translated my frustration and anger into a very popular art project. It was so satisfying for me. I felt like finally I can rest at night peacefully, knowing that maybe that guy would see one of these signs and question himself deeply. Thank you Paul.
Chris Bexar: Part of the project was that we went to public places and subverted the environments and private property with a little ILYB humor. Some of the people were not laughing when we were running away for our lives.
Robert Boyd: Another Dale? Liked the tribute to Elzie Segar
Will Bentsen: This painting is part of “Reproduction Project No. 2”. Painted live at our Negative Space Show
Paul Kremer: We set up two blank canvases side by side and tried to paint the same things on each. It turned into a free for all.
Rodney Chinelliott: At some point we were going to hire an artist in China to replicate these two paintings. Not sure whatever happen with that. I’ve added the other painting that goes with it.
Chris Bexar: Now I have no idea what to thin….
Robert Boyd: A call for help?
Will Bentsen: I’m at a total loss on this one.
Paul Kremer: I don’t remember this one either, but I do remember that star/boot logo appearing some paintings..
Rodney Chinelliott: This was loosely based on someone we were talking about who appeared on a talk show who was in pain whenever someone touched him. Also, he was in pain when he touched someone.
Chris Bexar: WoW! I just realized those are hands touching in pain… I thought it was a cactus when we put it up.
Robert Boyd: Was someone getting fucked over by Wells Fargo?
Will Bentsen: Yes. I was having some issues with a hold on an incoming out of town check which caused several outgoing checks to bounce racking up lots of insufficient funds charges.
Paul Kremer: Yep, that was Will’s bad deal.
Rodney Chinelliott: Will was so pissed off at Wells Fargo that day.
Chris Bexar: Wells Fargo still sucks. The “OK” asshole is the best part.