The Chronicle Review

Tacky or Terrific?, The Art of Experience

Photograph by Scott Squire

A black-velvet painting of a Mexican Superman from Moises Mariscal's shop in Tijuana; artist unknown.
March 06, 2011

Black-velvet paintings of Elvis tend to be of the later King—the Presley of high collars, rhinestones, puffy features, and angst. But whether young or aging badly, Elvis on velvet is the "iconic nadir" of a much maligned art, says Eric A. Eliason, a folklorist and professor at Brigham Young University. "Black velvet as medium and Elvis as subject matter represent all that is tacky, tasteless, earnest, sentimental, worthless, simplistic, poorly crafted, unoriginal, frivolous, redundant, and common." It's a given, right? Black-velvet painting is the "anti-art," writes Eliason, and fine art defines itself against such atrocities.

Yet there is a loyal constituency for black-velvet art, and it isn't the hipster hanging an Elvis in full irony.

In touch from Provo, Utah, the professor explains.

He was only 7 or 8 during the black-velvet craze of the mid-1970s, but he remembers the allure. Drawn by nature, he says, to anything dramatic and visual, he enjoyed the black-velvet painting of a matador in a bedroom at his grandmother's. He would see streetside vendors of black-velvet paintings and beg his mother to buy him a lion or a black panther, to no avail. Instead she would talk about kitsch and bad taste and the need to avoid them. "This was hard for me to grasp as a child," he recalls. "If it looks cool, isn't it cool?"

Cool, kitsch, camp, ironic, schlocky— Eliason makes room in Black Velvet Art (University Press of Mississippi) for multiple interpretations. "There are still people who are completely innocent in their appreciation for it," he remarks over the phone. "They see it, they like it, they love it, they buy it.

"In a way, it's the purest form of art there is, in that people only buy it for aesthetic reasons. With this constituency, anyway, you're not going to have a collectible that is going to earn you any money. You're not going to impress your sophisticated friends, and in fact you might even pay a cost for owning it. So it strips down your art purchase to just aesthetic preference. There's something pure and sweet about that."

Asked how he began the project, Eliason takes his discipline gently to task for playing it safe. As an academic field, folklore "is all about discovering underappreciated art forms produced by marginalized people and making a case for their value and significance. To me it seemed that folklorists have only gone after the low-hanging fruit in this enterprise. How hard is it to convince people of the value of exquisite Appalachian ballads passed on for hundreds of years, or of the beauty and fine craftsmanship of traditional quilts? I wondered what would be the hardest art form to redeem in this way. What is the most despised and marginalized art there is? My answer came immediately, and I knew I had to take on this project."

Eliason joined with a photographer—and old friend—Scott Squire, to produce a chocolate-box-size book with, yes, black-velvet binding, under a matador dust jacket. The book's 150-plus illustrations draw on a digital archive the two assembled of more than 1,000 images. Their selection for publication has a healthy sample of "Elvii" or "Velvii," along with matadors, big cats, Jesuses, landscapes, actors, bandits, Superman, Aztec warriors, comely women, creepy big-eyed children, and other likely suspects. It also has a section of "horrors," botched velvet paintings that, by contrast, reveal the skill of the good stuff.

Painting on velvet has a pedigree of sorts, in settings as diverse as 14th-century Kashmir, 16th-century China, and 19th-century England. But for Americans, the modern origins of the lurid art some love to hate is initially the South Pacific and later Mexico. A "roguish" American beachcomber in Tahiti named Edgar Leeteg (1904-53) created works that are today collector's items. Mexico became the mother lode, however. Writes Eliason: "Black velvet is a Mexican art that is truly American," a collaborative enterprise. "If it doesn't sell, we won't paint it. If it does sell, we'll paint more," a Tijuana gallery owner told him. The often-schlocky Mexican mass production of the 70s disappeared some time ago, victim of the Chinese. What remains, however, are skilled painters like Tijuana's Enrique Felix, who remembers the riches of that decade, when a Las Vegas casino employed him as its resident artist: "We were superstars in those days." Also featured is the 20-something, single-monikered Romero. The young Tijuana artist is known for his "organic angularity" and bold lines, plying white paint to create sober-shadowed gray and black. "Black velvet is as much a part of the Mexican art tradition as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo," Romero told the folklorist. "Painting velvet is a way to practice my craft, get good with the brush, and sometimes try some new things." Eventually Romero hoped to study art at a university, "but I'll always be glad I did this."

The Sixth Caribbean Biennial was a grand affair. Held at a resort on St. Kitts in November 1999, it brought together Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gabriel Orozco, Pipilotti Rist, and seven other leading contemporary artists along with a handful of journalists, photographers, and friends. The only thing missing was the public—and, actually, the art. As an art exhibit, writes Noah Horowitz, the biennial was a hoax, despite some cryptic advertisements in Artforum, Frieze, and other media implying otherwise. As a holiday, it was a success. The artists et al. did what anyone would do at a Caribbean resort in November.

Horowitz sees another meaning, however. The exhibitless exhibit "testifies to the politically compromised status of art and exhibition making at the very moment of the art world's globalization." The organizers' "decision to locate their faux exhibition on a holiday destination island offers a cynical vision of the biennial's dead-end elaboration as nothing but cultural tourism."

Such tourism is a recurrent theme of Horowitz's Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market (Princeton University Press), a complex but intriguing read. The author, an art historian who teaches at Sotheby's Institute of Art, in New York, promises a window on some of the "more extreme and novel ways that value is generated in the contemporary art economy." This has included an ever-expanding world of art fairs and biennials, where what is sold is as often the elbow-rubbing experience as any art, and where more and more money comes from more and more places.

The book is a triptych. One segment centers on the somewhat arid world of art-investment funds, or the strategic buying and selling of artworks for profit—no personal connoisseurship necessary. "I am not really interested in art," one fund founder commented in 2007. "It is simply a commodity." Horowitz notes that that fund went belly up in 2009. No telling if the widget worldview hurt or helped.

The bulk of the book, however, explores value in two genres once highly marginalized in the market: video art and what Horowitz terms experiential art. Both have their beginnings, he writes, in the "dematerialization of the art object," a process that was midwife to installation art, performance art, and other forms. Dematerialization, he argues, broadened the focus of the art marketplace from tangible objects to immaterial content and intellectual-property rights. Of course, "it is not always evident just what one is buying." Yet Horowitz shows how dealers use cutting-edge video and experiential art as "loss leaders," trumpeting their hipness as they make their real money on paintings and other more conventional objects.