Velvet Elvis Lives!

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Velvet art gets a pretty bad rap, but what is the scourge of the art world actually has a fairly long history. The form was noticed by Marco Polo during his 14th-century exploration of Kashmir. And during the Victorian era, it was enjoyed as a pastime pleasure of the upper middle class. But highbrow hobby turned to lowbrow camp in the 20th century when velvet paintings—which featured an array of exotica from bare-chested Tahitian women to homoerotic matadors—were mass produced for tourist markets and quickly became a mainstay of the flea markets everywhere. Indeed, after doing a quick online search, it seems only two velvet paintings have been deigned Smithsonian worthy by the curatorial powers that be. One is a still life of a fruit bowl from the early 1800s, the other is an "oil on velvet" portrait of Andy Warhol.

But why—oh why, I ask as I indignantly shake my fist at the sky—is a velvet Elvis not included in the Smithsonian collections? Immortalized in song—not to mention living rooms—this is the crème de la crème of American camp.

"The velvet Elvis has me flummoxed, really," says Warren Perry, curator of One Life: Echoes of Elvis, which opens today at the National Portrait Gallery. "How Elvis and velvet portraiture came to be associated I have no idea except, Elvis was not afraid of velvet, sequins, turquoise, suede, leather, capes, costumes or jewelry. His accessories included necklaces, rings, belts, and, more often than not, a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol in a hidden holster."

"I own two velvet Elvises myself and I am happy to have them," Perry admits. "My wife’s late aunt gave me one of them and I liked it so much, I bought another one myself on a trip to Juarez.  Why Elvis on velvet?  I’m not really sure.  Why bananas on peanut butter?  The combination is just kind of fun I guess."

And what would the King have thought about this type of imagery?

"Elvis would probably have laughed about it," Perry says. "Most of Elvis’ movies of the 1960s were poorly scripted 'good guy always wins' kind of shows and the music in those shows was usually as bad as the writing.  However, those moments in those tacky films were digested wholly by a huge Elvis fanbase and the studios all admitted that the revenue from those films financed a lot of serious work.  Sadly, Elvis was not offered a lot of serious roles in the movies—it would have been neat to find out if he could pull the drama in his voice onto the screen."

Because it seems no museum in its right mind collects them—or maybe because such a piece is too valuable to loan out?—a velvet Elvis was not secured for this show. But this is far from saying that there aren't lots of fun goodies to enjoy. (An Elvis nutcracker, anyone?)

If you absolutely have to see one of these paintings, and if you're lucky enough to be in Portland, Oregon, you still have time to check out the Velveteria's collection before it closes on January 24. For everyone else, the next time you're at a flea market or yard sale, keep an eye out—you may very well experience a velvet Elvis sighting.

One Life: Echoes of Elvis is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through August 29, 2010.

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