There's a great scene in the 1979 movie "The In-Laws" in which Peter Falk, as a CIA agent, tours the palace of a Central American dictator. As the tinhorn strongman, played by Richard Libertini, proudly displays his paintings, Falk says, "General, your art collection never fails to take my breath away." "Note the plasticity," Libertini brags as he points to a second-rate painting of a tiger for which he paid $25,000, "the use of perspective." The original artwork for a postage stamp in Libertini's banana republic shows the commander, uniformed, next to a prostitute, undressed. The tiger, the general and the prostitute are all painted on black velvet.
Velvet is to art as shag is to carpet. Acrylic on black velvet, that most wondrous of art forms, dominates curio shops all along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. Elvis, Jesus, voluptuous nudes, the Golden Gate Bridge, road runners, sad dogs, Mickey Mouse, John Wayne, E.T., Madonna -- the list of subjects has no end. By the time a studio has banked its blockbuster movie's first weekend's receipts, you can bet the stars are portrayed in velvet shops from Brownsville, Texas, to Tijuana. Dick Tracy on velvet should be on Calle Obregon by now.
I slipped down to Tijuana from San Diego a number of years ago to search for the ultimate in velvet art. I started at small shops and worked my way up the ladder from major retailers to big-time wholesalers, when finally I was led to a small warehouse outside the tourist district. Inside, a dozen young men sat in a row, each intently painting an acrylic Last Supper on black velvet. The fellow nearest me was just starting to set the table. The guy next to him was working on the ceiling. His neighbor was up replenishing some paint from a large bucket. My host ran this artistic sweatshop. He headed the local velvet artists union.
"These muchachos," he said with a sweep of his hand, "they come from the interior with the intention of crossing. They are talented and hungry. Most work here a few weeks before trying to go north." It occurred to me that America's illegal immigration problem could be solved if we all bought more velvet art. "Some come back and settle in. We have a few who have been here a couple of years." As I was leaving, the painter nearest the door had just finished one Last Supper and was preparing for his next.
For the western half of the border, Tijuana leads the velvet art parade, while Juarez markets the most for the Texas stretch. Also the best, according to velvet aficionados. "Velvet art gets better the farther west you go," one well-traveled border rat told me recently. "El Paso/Juarez beats Brownsville/Matamoros by a mile."
Jaime Dante Cortes of Monterrey, Mexico, is believed to have begun the phenomenon. In 1955, Cortes was asked to paint a Virgin of Guadalupe on the skirt of a dancer about to embark on a tour of the States. The skirt was made of black velvet, a texture Cortes found to his liking, and a new form of art began.
Nogales has a bare handful of velvet artists, at its lowest ebb since the phenomenon took hold. I learned this from Fernando Salgado, a merchant who used to work on velvet himself but has since given it up. Tubes of paint come from the States, bolts of velvet from Mexicali and inspiration from Tijuana.
Daniel Guerrero is a Nogales artist who lives on the Mexico side of the border and drives his '52 Pontiac to work on the U.S. side every day. At his second-story studio, Guerrero gives art courses to adults and kids. Take a look around and it becomes immediately apparent that his skills are far broader than can be conveyed by the medium of velvet.
"I don't give much importance to velvet," Guerrero told me. "I prefer to experiment with lights and shadows, things that velvet doesn't allow. Because the background is black, you can't change anything. It limits your precision. I used to paint on velvet to make a living. Now that I teach, I don't do that any more."
Artist Gustavo Monroy agrees with Guerrero. Monroy, a Nogales native active in Mexico City's art world, has exhibited his works in Arizona, California and elsewhere.
"Velvet art is an industry. You find it in the homes of the poor in Mexico. If Willem de Kooning signed his name on velvet, then it'd be worth a million. But there are no famous painters of velvet in Mexico. The same in the States."
The U.S. art world has a bemused, if detached, view of the art form. "Velvet art," says Linda McAllister, a Tempe, Ariz.-based consultant to arts groups, "is remarkably responsive to international pop media." Guy Bensausan, a professor at Northern Arizona University, uses loftier language. "It uses extensive imagery and iconography. It romanticizes. The way it spread is fascinating because there are no connectors. The people in El Paso don't know what the people in Brownsville are doing. It's a regional phenomenon which developed without much interaction or influence."
Artist Julian Schnabel, on the cutting edge of today's high-ticket avant garde scene, has brought velvet art to the fore of American expressionism. One of his huge works on black velvet hung at the Phoenix Art Museum last year. "Schnabel's multi-media works go for $50,000, including ones with velvet," according to University of Arizona art professor Wayne Estes. "The East Village art scene of the 1980s, which was big from 1980 to 1986, rebelled against the SoHo and uptown art scene by creating off-the-wall art. The use of velvet is a way of rebelling against high art, to use kitsch -- it's a denial of the difference between high art and popular art."
Paul Mavrides blurs the distinction between high and popular art, as well as low, dada and nada. Mavrides, who now lives in San Francisco, spent a few years in Arizona in the '70s developing his skills; his work appeared on T-shirts, posters, floor-to-ceiling barroom murals and comics. This last venue has sustained him well. He now co-authors "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers," the classic hippie-underground comic from the '60s that is still going strong -- the comic, not the '60s -- and has done album covers and Hollywood movie posters, among other works. His weirder works include a black velvet painting of Mao Zedong with droopy Keene eyes.
"Painting on velvet is real visceral and it's fun," Mavrides admits. "Velvet eats up paint ... I use real velvet instead of velveteen, which a lot of tourist paintings are on. It has a deeper nap. It highlights the bright spots, whether droplets of blood or a glowing nuclear reactor pump. Surprisingly, my velvet work is incredibly popular. People really seem to respond to velvet -- people who wouldn't be caught dead with a 'real' velvet painting on their walls take to these a lot."
Mavrides stretches black velvet to its extremes. He's now at work on a series of velvet paintings that includes depictions of Jackie Kennedy climbing out of the back of the limo in Dealey Plaza, the Challenger explosion, the aftermath of the Jim Jones massacre, an AIDS virus, crack and a glass pipe. "I choose these horrifying subjects for velvet because they're so repugnant. You're attracted to the repulsion, and velvet simply magnifies the push-pull quality."
Think about that the next time you're at the swap meet. Tom Miller's books include "The Panama Hat Trail" and "On the Border." He writes about conflict and culture in the American Southwest and Latin America.