The strange ways we remember Elvis Presley are best summed up by the lyrics of the late Warren Zevon’s “Jesus Mentioned,” in which he imagines traveling to Memphis to see the dead King: “He went walking on the water … with his pills.”
Zevon thus concisely explains how our culture both deifies Presley, who died in 1977, and views his life’s course as sadly, perhaps pathetically, tragic.
Paul Laffoley’s artwork The Life and Death of Elvis Presley: A Suite could someday have the same kind of impact. It is a lot more complex that Zevon’s sparse and simple song, but it covers the same sort of dichotomous territory. It’s also very strange in itself — surrealist even.
It’s at the Carl Solway Gallery in the West End through Sept. 6 for its first public showing ever. And how it got to Solway is equally strange.
One might call it visionary art — it has that kind of obsessive detailing. But its mystical intellectualism and its carefully ordered achievement marks the ambitious vision of a well-trained artist.
The Elvis Suite gets a whole gallery at Solway and needs it. On one wall are the eight paintings that comprise the work. On the other is the photocopied correspondence from Laffoley to Russ Barnard, the collector who commissioned the work in 1988.
Each painting is 55-by-35-inches and is jam-packed (that might be an understatement) with pictures and meticulously lettered text related to Presley’s life. Each also has a brass rod and velvet drape — the colors vary — that can be drawn to cover it up. There are six paintings whose central images depict Presley at step-by-step seven-year life stages (he died at age 42).
“Son of ‘Sattnin’” comes first, followed by “Captain Marvel the Third,” “Frankenpelvis,” “The Prime Elvis,” “The Comeback Kid” and “The Remains of the Voice.” (That first title refers to the way Presley as a child pronounced the word “satin,” because his mother worked as a seamstress.)
The actual portraits of Presley are moodily black and white with his irises a startling blue. He passes from a sweet child to the puffy, bloated, downright monstrous Presley of his last year.
Dropping down below the portraits, in color-compatible columns crammed with enough information to seemingly fill an encyclopedia, are important events during the years covered. And below those are horizontal strips with smaller images — precious miniatures — pertaining to Presley’s life and the greater world around him.
You might recognize the source material of some — “The Narc — Nixon” relates to his famous visit and photograph with President Nixon. But how Laffoley gets from, say, “Hitler in Berlin” to “Elvis Sees a UFO” is mysterious.
The first and last paintings in Elvis Suite are more like multi-bordered mandalas or horoscopic charts. One is titled “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the world” and the other, fittingly, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the world.”
The overall information included is incredible — including discussion of Presley being cryogenically frozen.
“I think I’ve done the definitive work on Elvis,” Laffoley says in a phone interview.
Laffoley, 73, has an impressive resume and a website that’s very entertaining to read. Here’s a taste: (In the 1960s), “Laffoley began to organize his ideas in a format related to eastern mandalas, partially inspired by the late night patterns he watched for Warhol on sixties late night television.”
He studied classics at Brown University and architecture at Harvard, and decided to focus on painting in the Boston-Cambridge area after a spell in New York. Since 1971, his studio has been known as Boston Visionary Cell.
Michael Solway, Carl’s son and the gallery director, has a long relationship with Laffoley. He’s also a music lover, so the subject appealed to him.
“I’ve been a long fan of art that deals with issues of mysticism and spirituality — psychedelic art,” he says.
Elvis Suite was completed in 1995, yet this is its first showing. Owner Russ Barnard has kept it stored in crates.
He’d like to see important visitors, such as museum curators, view it for possible institutional display and/or sale, in the process establishing value. He also said Laffoley referred him to Solway.
Barnard commissioned Elvis Suite when he published a New York-based magazine called Country Music. He had already hired Laffoley to do a portrait of Hank Williams to accompany a well-received article by the art critic Dave Hickey. Barnard was a Country music fan who first saw Presley perform in Amarillo, Texas, in 1955.
He and an associate noticed magazine readers were placing ads for Presley memorabilia, and he thought a magazine-commissioned artwork might appeal to them. Perhaps it could be sold as a limited-edition print portfolio.
“Something classy rather than the crap people were advertising in the magazine,” Barnard says. But soon he thought of Laffoley and knew that wouldn’t work.
“I realized it was much too serious for that idea,” he says. “It had to stand alone as a one-time work of art.”
And the long letter Laffoley soon sent him reinforced that. A copy is on the wall at Solway — the gallery will provide magnifying glasses — and it’s fascinating. It reveals Laffoley wasn’t especially a Presley fan — he tells his patron he has so far heard 192 of his songs and is “beginning to really appreciate his operatic voice.”
He also explains he will be trying to “take calendar art and turn it into a meditation series in which the fans attempt to recreate Elvis’ existence as a thought-form or a tulpa (from the Hindu concept).”
Barnard, who sold the magazine in 1999, has thought off-and-on about what to do with the crated Elvis Suite. “I deliberately decided not to put these on sale until I could get a proper exhibition in a fine-art environment, because there is so much crap associated with Elvis,” he says.
“I’m glad it’s being shown,” Laffoley says. “I love people to see my work.” ©
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ELVIS PRESLEY: A SUITE continues at Carl Solway Gallery through Sept. 6. More info: solwaygallery.com.