April 17, 2016

Photo Essay: The Black Velvet Paintings of Velveteria (Updated 2019, Now Closed)

[Last updated 12/7/19 7:52 PM PT—Velveteria is now closed, with no announcement of relocation.]

I have some vague recollection from when I was a child of seeing some man—maybe different men over the course of time—selling velvet paintings off the side of Erie Boulevard. In Syracuse, it would be unusual to see anyone on the side of the road at all, much less someone selling something.

In my memory, though, those paintings were huge and unframed—something more like Middle Eastern tapestries, only with the face of Elvis painted on one side.

I remember kind of liking them, or at least being fascinated by them; but somehow I was acutely aware that they weren't something you were supposed to like.

Then again, I still liked disco even after it was passé.

But it never ever occurred to me that one day there might be a museum devoted to the wares being sold by those roadside vendors.

And, indeed, there is. But I suppose nowadays there's a museum for everything.

The thing about Velveteria in Chinatown is that its proprietors, Carl and Caren, take the art of black velvet paintings surprisingly seriously.

They educate visitors about everything from the materials used (natural silk or synthetic being the most common options)... the painting techniques (generally oil versus airbrush)... their upkeep and their historical and cultural significance.

Although the most common image on a velvet painting throughout the world is Jesus...

...they've got lots of works of art inspired by pop culture...

...including film directors...

...and actors like Jack Nicholson...

...and the movies themselves.

Still, the owners of Velveteria (pronounced like "cafeteria") have a good sense of humor in terms of which paintings they acquire...

...and which ones they choose to show as part of the curated exhibits in their gallery.

After all, they must choose...

...because their current space in Chinatown only holds about a fifth (or probably even less) of the total number of freaks, nudes, hula girls, toreadors, unicorns...

...and celebrities they've got depicted on velvet (which also includes Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus, David Bowie, Dame Edna, and Barack Obama).

The rest are in storage somewhere, some of which get rotated in and out of the museum somewhat arbitrarily.

And the collection keeps growing, as a result of either acquisitions (both contemporary and vintage)...

...or commissions of new work.

Carl's got a guy in Tijuana who can paint just about anything, for the right price.

Some of the likenesses are really incredible...

...with the use of airbrush blurring the lines between velvet art and graffiti murals...

...which in some strange way are positioned on opposite sides of the street art coin.

But only one of them can you actually take home with you.

Is it serious art?

Does it have to be serious to even be art?

Certainly not all music is serious.

You can spend a lot of time contemplating the universe in there...

...even sometimes looking at the same painting twice and not realizing it.

But while you're there, it's essential to pay homage to The King at the small hallway shrine in the back...

...and meditate a bit in the black light room... least until it starts to freak you out.

For some, that might be immediately.

I like to stare at the faces for a while, until it almost appears as though they're popping out into reality from some kind of black abyss.

If your eyes see it and your brain believes it, does that make it real?

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