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Black Velvet Art

Black Velvet Art

Eric A. Eliason
Photographs by Scott Squire
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Black Velvet Art
    Book Description:

    Jesus, matadors, panthers, bandits, Indians, movie stars, waifs, and, of course, Elvis are recognized icons of the oft-despised, uber-kitsch art form of black velvet painting. InBlack Velvet Artauthor Eric A. Eliason and photographer Scott Squire present a comprehensive overview of this covertly-loved and overtly-reviled tradition.

    In cooperation with a network of artists, collectors, importers, and gallery owners in Tijuana, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Calgary, this book draws from the largest survey of velvet painting ever undertaken. The book traces velvet's historical development as a folk art shaped by both indigenous traditions as well as Western consumer expectations in such markets as the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and particularly the U.S./Mexico border and the black velvet capital of Tijuana. In black velvet, class and taste challenge art as a consumer phenomenon, democratic spirit faces down elitism, reproduction questions originality, and sexuality seduces and provokes religiosity.

    What is most significant about black velvet art to many Americans is its signaling of the nadir of bad taste. Black velvet is the "anti-art" in many ways. Eliason seeks to explore how and why black velvet serves this function and to examine ways it deserves a glowing redemption.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-795-0
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. The History and Significance of Black Velvet Painting
    (pp. ix-xxx)

    In the movieEntrapment, Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones play art thieves competing to see who can pull off the most audacious burglary. Ms. Zeta-Jones scores big when she sneaks into a well-guarded castle, swipes a priceless masterpiece, and leaves in its place a . . . black velvet painting of Elvis.¹

    In his acclaimed bestsellerHow the Mind Works, Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that explanations for the origin of art should not just focus on highbrow material but should also take into account humanity’s shared creative impulse. To understand art, we cannot only go to the symphony...

  5. Black Velvet People

    • Romero, Felix, and Chuy, the Artists
      (pp. xxxii-xxxvii)

      In his black ironed shirt, black knit hat, and small-frame glasses, Romero wears one of the allowable uniforms for a Mexico City art world sophisticate. Yet this early-twenties young man is in Tijuana selling his black velvet paintings to gallery owners at the urging of his uncle, who always supported his artistic bent when he was a child and now helps manage his career. Romero knows full well the complexities of kitsch and consumer culture that velvet represents; yet he dove in anyway. “Black Velvet is as much a part of the Mexican art tradition as Diego Rivera and Frida...

    • William Travis Robison, Impresario of Velvet
      (pp. xxxviii-xl)

      Bill Robison, curator of sales for Indignico Inc.—the top Google listing from any search for “black velvet painting”—has been an importer and a behind-the-scenes stage manager of black velvet happenings for nearly fifteen years. He lays a persuasive claim to being “the first white guy” to make the highly significant historical assertion—for the purposes of this book anyway—that the now iconic velvet Elvii were first sold at the Mariscal Gallery in Tijuana in the 1950s. He was also behind the strange velvet doings at the Republican National Convention in San Diego.

      During that fateful week in...

    • Rick Smith, the Collector
      (pp. xli-xlii)

      With his fine-stitched boots, polite manner, and the sonorous voice of a radio announcer, Rick Smith is the consummate Canadian cowboy gentleman. For thirty-three years, he served as the director of Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary where reenactors demonstrate pioneer living during the settlement of western Canada in much the way Plimoth Plantation evokes Puritan New England or Colonial Williamsburg re-creates Revolution-era Virginia.

      In 2001, Rick found himself far away from work and family at a medical center in Edmonton. He had been given the frightening diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis and was undergoing a six-week, inpatient, doctor’s orders indoctrination...

  6. Black Velvet Paintings

    • Matadors and Mexicana
      (pp. 3-15)

      When tourists go to Mexico, they want to bring back something Mexican. In defining what is Mexican, it is not so much how Mexicans see themselves that determines what tourists want, but those things that seem the most different or those most readily associated with the way Mexico is conceived by tourists. Mexicans’ similarities to Americans fade and the differences stand out in basrelief.

      Bloodsport bullfighting is illegal in the United States. So regardless of its popularity in Mexico today, to Americans the sport is pure exotic Mexico. Matadors and bulls captured in various action poses were perhaps the greatest...

    • Landscapes
      (pp. 17-29)

      In 1993, Soviet émigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid commissioned an expansive study of artistic preferences in ten countries.⁴ Their plan was to find out through scientific polling what people liked and paint it for them. For each country, the artists cobbled together some of the strongest expressed preferences and painted them together in one painting.USA’s Most Wanteddepicts George Washington as well as children playing.Kenya’s Most Wantedshows both Jesus and a hippo.

      However, what is most striking about the paintings is not their differences of detail but their broad similarities of motif. Americans, Turks, Icelanders,...

    • Personalities and Portraits
      (pp. 31-44)

      Few things are more compelling to humans than other humans—particularly the faces of familiar and famous people. Moises Mariscal explains, “In my shop, over the years, buyers have always liked portraits. The people depicted have changed, but buyers have always liked faces. Matadors, nudes, funny animals have come and gone but I have always sold faces.”⁹ We like having pictures of our family members around, especially when they are not.¹⁰ If any of the velvets in this section are of people you don’t recognize, it may be that they are commissioned portraits of family members that were special to...

    • Elvii
      (pp. 46-55)

      Elvis on velvet, or “Velvis,” as theUrban Dictionarycalls it,¹⁴ first appeared at the Mariscal Gallery in Tijuana in the late 1950s, according to Moises Mariscal, the current owner of this third-generation family enterprise. At first, Elvis was merely one of many celebrities available. His image was popular but did not dominate or define the velvet painting throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. This all changed on August 16, 1977, when The King died from prescription drug overdose and velvet painters went into Elvis overdrive.¹⁵ By 1977, velvet was still popular but in decline from its 1974–1975 peak....

    • Niños y Niñas
      (pp. 57-65)

      Paintings of children are velvet at its most sentimental. On velvet, children dance, play, pray, poop, daydream, get hurt, and cry. They go for the jugular in evoking emotional responses and protective instincts. Art critics might say they do this in a way that is easy and exploitative. To velvet buyers, subject matter can redeem most any painting. Human hardwiring to appreciate what biologists call neoteny—big eyes, round faces, proportionally big heads, small noses and ears, and full lips—is on display here.²² One can imagine that ancestors who did not have powerful positive responses when seeing happy children,...

    • Creatures
      (pp. 67-79)

      Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Animals can scare us and also comfort us. Sometimes they are comforting because they are scary, because we imagine that scare directed at someone else. Sometimes animals embody ideals of confidence, capability, and dignity we aspire to. A young boy in the Mariscals’ shop calls out, “Mom! Mom! Look at this tiger! It is so cool!”; he is deeply drawn to its menace. In bald eagles, many American buyers see the living representation of their national spirit. We identify with animals so much that sometimes the boundary separating them from us breaks down.²³...

    • Religious
      (pp. 81-85)

      People from Protestant countries often flinch from Catholic depictions of an agony-wracked Jesus on the cross dripping blood from his crown of thorns and the nails in his feet and hands. A common Catholic response to this is “What’s the matter, don’t you believe in Jesus?” Catholics marvel at the depths to which God would go to save us mortals and have traditionally sought to plumb those depths in their art to acknowledge the magnitude of the Savior’s sacrifice.²⁶ Sometimes they wonder if Protestants really get what the crucifixion was all about in their sanitized chapels with their Jesusless crosses....

    • Ladies
      (pp. 87-97)

      The earliest known art of any form are small, carved figurines with highly exaggerated feminine features. Their creators obscured faces, hands, and feet, but ballooned out breasts, buttocks, and thighs. There are hundreds of these carvings covering tens of thousands of years of prehistory collected in museums throughout Europe. But they are indecipherable anachronisms that come to us with no cultural context. The forty-thousand-year-old mammoth-ivoryVenus of Hohle Felspushed back the earliest date for any known artwork by several millennia when found in a cave in southern Germany in 2008. But archeologists and art historians can only speculate whether...

    • Horrors
      (pp. 99-106)

      Ugliness, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. Some readers might flinch in offense that some personally appealing thing has been included in this section, but we doubt it. Most readers will recoil from the ugly. This section gathers only the most poorly executed, over-the-top garish, bizarre-looking paintings of the most unappealing subject matter. Some are terrible because something sweet like a child or beautiful celebrity is turned into a monster. What should be a cute-kid nose is a honking piggy snout. Marilyn Monroe looks like her face has been flattened with a shovel. Elvis ends up...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 107-110)
  8. Index
    (pp. 111-112)