Editors' pick

One Life: Echoes of Elvis


Editorial Review

National Portrait Gallery celebrates the king with 'One Life: Echoes of Elvis'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Monday, Jan. 11, 2010

Organized in honor of what would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday this month -- and the first of several Elvis-themed exhibitions opening at area museums this year -- the National Portrait Gallery's "One Life: Echoes of Elvis" is a little party of a show. It's meant to be fun, in other words. That's according to curator Warren Perry, who supplements the one-room show's seven portraits of Elvis with display cases featuring Elvis-themed books, memorabilia, a handmade scrapbook put together after his death by an anonymous fan and photographs of Graceland by artist William Eggleston.

This is not a show for anyone wondering, "Now about those teenage girls ... "

It does, however, get at the concept of Elvis as something larger than life. Two of the works in the show are by Howard Finster, the late folk artist known for his pictures of angels and Coca-Cola bottles. In fact, Finster's 1990 portrait "Elvis at Three" depicts the singer, who died in 1977, with white wings. Based on a famous photograph, the artist's other contribution to the show, the 1991 "Elvis in Army Uniform," is almost as iconic a silhouette as a Coke bottle. Its depiction of Elvis reveals not the man, but a distinctly American ideal.

"Elvis, the Artist, and Pink Cadillac" (1988) by folk artist Donald Paterson plays with that same theme, setting Elvis and his signature car against a cityscape featuring a version of the American flag and an apple tree. The closest thing to the dark side of Elvis? Red Grooms's cartoonish 1987 lithograph, in which the gold-lam-suited performer -- posing in front of Graceland with guitar and Caddy, naturally -- sports a lip curl that is almost as sinister as it is sexy.

The show makes one point exceptionally well. "You don't need to be an Elvis fan," says Perry, "to have an Elvis connection." There's a certain intimacy to these portraits of a man whom, for the most part, the artists never met. (Note also that no one ever calls him anything but "Elvis.") And why is that? "I can't say exactly," says Perry, adding that the mystery of our enduring fascination with Elvis is one of many topics that will be addressed in a March symposium on Elvis (see below).

One thing not up for discussion: The pop-cultural phenomenon of the black-velvet Elvis. Although there are no Elvis-on-velvet paintings in the show - a glaring oversight, perhaps -- Perry (who himself owns two) is well aware of their appeal, chalking it up to the fact that, to many of us, Elvis is forever frozen, like a bug in amber, in the kitsch of the 1970s. Somehow that combination of velvet and Elvis -- "like peanut butter and bananas," Perry says -- just stuck in our minds.

Ralph Wolfe Cowan's oil-on-canvas portrait, based on 1969 sketches from the singer's only actual portrait sitting, wraps up this small show best. Its Elvis is both human, clad in blue jeans with a heart-shaped key chain dangling from the pocket, and beatified. A cathedral of pinkish clouds frames its almost Christlike subject - and the appropriately churchlike Graceland in the distance.

Cowan, as curator Perry notes, is the world's most prolific painter of heads of state, so it makes sense that the King chose to sit for him.

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