On January 23rd of this month, after four years of much notoriety and some ridicule, “Velveteria,” the one and only “velvet painting museum,” in Portland, Oregon, closed its doors. Its 300 plus paintings on velvet were a monument to a peculiar medium that seemed to have reached its apogee in Tijuana in the 1970s.
Elvis pictures have been so prevalent in this medium that they have their own term of identification: an Elvis on velvet is a “Velvis.” Why the association? Is it simply because velvet painting is ipso facto a genre of high kitsch art and for many, Elvis Presley is the essence of kitsch?
This may explain some of the association, but probably not all of it. Think of what dominates the iconography of velvet painting, besides Elvis, naked women, and unicorns. This is an art form for charismatic martyrs, including Jesus, JFK, MLK, Michael Jackson, and Che Guevara, and for various incarnations of sad, big-eyed waifs, sad big-eyed clowns, and sad big-eyed puppies. And everywhere possible in velvet art there are tears.
The decent from canvas to velvet is the decent from pathos to bathos.
With their dark, dramatic backgrounds, and sketchy, ambiguous details, paintings on velvet are powerful agents for opening the emotional floodgates of susceptible viewers. As neuroscientists have recently discovered, our visual brain will “complete” the compositional and emotional ambiguity of works of art to suit our own sensibilities. This is part of the work and the joy of viewing art.
The sweating/weeping Elvis on velvet will be empowered by our mental workings both to capture and to evoke a profound sense of compassion and pity.
As an Elvis icon (above) is created to enable viewers make conversational contact with the King, a Velvis is created to enable viewers to tap into their most profound emotions about the King.
That’s why they looks so different.