Like any card carrying hipster will tell you, velvet is classy stuff. And accordingly, velvet painting, Mexico’s chief contribution to twentieth century art — fans of Diego Rivera stop reading here — has got other forms of art beat from the get go. Where a crying clown on canvas just doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, the same clown on delicious black velvet becomes the centerpiece of any modern living room. Consider if you will that while other mediums will accept neon paint, velvet thrives on it, and while canvas may be content to sit there and be looked at, velvet cries out “Touch me you artless bastard, I’m made out of fucking velvet!”
Although Mexicans didn’t come up with the idea of painting on velvet — that dubious distinction rests on Victorian shoulders — they made it the celebrated institution we know today. Interest-ingly, Victorian textile workers were often driven insane by repeated exposure to mercury in the velvet-making process, foreshadowing the complete lack of common sense that would pave the way for the velvet renaissance decades down the road. The modern era of velvet opulence began in the 1950s, as a post-war generation of Americans found themselves with too much money in their pockets and not enough sense in their heads. Mexico, conveniently located just to the south, responded by producing tourist items that took advantage of the fact that, if you were an American in Mexico, you were probably too drunk to see. In retrospect, painted velvet seems like a natural response to what most Americans want most: something in neon colors that’s pleasing to the touch, and that you can show off to the neighbors. Once again, as so often in history, drunken tourists had unknowingly raised the cultural bar a little higher.
By the early 1960s, what had been a novelty sold in few stores and produced essentially on demand had become a legitimate business with several factory-style sweatshops being operated in the larger border towns, beating Andy-what’s-his-name’s Factory to market by several years. The velvet underground had arrived in the mainstream. Where the first velvet paintings had been of nature scenes and animals, celebrities and Keane-esque weeping children and clowns quickly surged into the forefront of velvet style. By now the work was done almost exclusively on black velvet, all the better to emphasize the heavy lint buildup that separated velvet paintings from lesser forms of artwork.
As the sixties rolled on, velvet crept insidiously into every corner of American domesticity. Mattel went so far as to manufacture a velvet paint-by-numbers kit for children. Demonstrating that someone in charge was completely unaware of what he was talking about, the box suggested to parents that this kit would expose children to “culture” and that the 15” x 19” velvet monstrosities could be used to decorate the home. Stranger still: among other cultural icons given to Nikita Kruschev when he visited the United States in 1961 was a velvet portrait of the Soviet leader standing in front of a giant hammer and sickle. In spite of this, the cold war went on for another twenty eight years. It seems the reds didn’t appreciate real art like we did.
By the early seventies, American taste had begun to shift just enough to leave behind the velvet art that had given us something to look at and touch through the sixties. After man had been to the moon, velvet paintings just didn’t seem so out-of-this-world. While you could still get them in Mexico, they were surpassed in popularity by ceramic figurines and other watered-down cultural artifacts. By 1975 your grandparents probably still had one in their basement, but velvet paintings were strictly garage sale fodder for most families. The majority of the art sweatshops closed, and Mexico found other disreputable ways to lure tourist dollars.
Curiously, the most enduring velvet icon had only just begun production. While most people associate Elvis with the velvet medium, it wasn’t until the mid-seventies that Graceland began selling the now infamous portraits, well after velvet’s heyday. The King, always a cultural savant, was given a velvet portrait of himself in his jumpsuit glory and purportedly saw to it that replicas became officially licensed Elvis paraphernalia. Thus the last regular American manufacture of velvet portraiture took place in Tennessee, continuing until several years after Elvis’ 1977 death.
Unfortunately, the days of velvet wine and velvet roses are for the most part over. Although you can find a few stores in Tijuana that do custom velvet work — and believe you me that nothing is cooler than having a velvet painting of yourself hanging in the bedroom — the mass produced “art” of yesteryear is nowhere to be found for commercial sale. Any thrift store worth its grime will have one or two behind the macramé owls, but gone are the days of hundreds of velvet paintings being hawked to tourists who don’t have a clue. To the surprise of very few, the fickle favor of the art world has given velvet the cold shoulder, to be replaced in America’s living room by other, less touchable, forms of art. But for how long? I would argue that simply by being too hideous for the majority of the retro crowd, velvet has proven its long term durability. One day the velvet empire will be strong once again, and sad clowns will regain their rightful place on top of the art world.