Elvis and Birds by Ben Roe Jr. currently hangs in the naturally lit and underappreciated gallery space of the South Broadway Cultural Center as part of the group show Recurrences, joined by work by Roberto Salas and Bobby J. Jones. A work of driven by collage, Elvis and Birds is an assemblage of parts with a complexity best considered by separating the main elements and taking them one at a time.
First, there is Elvis. When confronted with an Elvis of any shape or context, what we say may be generational. A creature made wholly out of a branding strategy, perceptions of Elvis have changed wildly over the generations since his 1956 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Likewise, the continued use and purpose of Elvis iconography in art has changed as well. It was 30 years ago this summer that cultural critic Flavor Flav made plain and public his reconsidered attitude towards the legacy of Elvis. “Fuck him and John Wayne,” said the man wearing the big clock.
Holding a unique place in the American canon of iconography, over time Elvis has gone from veneration (with John Wayne) by Andy Warhol, to endless farce à la impersonators, to full-bore reconsiderations of not only his songs and the legitimacy of his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but deep dives into his creepy relationship with Priscilla by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and others. His inclusion in Elvis and Birds is a bold choice that can send the viewer spinning off in many directions.
Then there are the birds. Against the advice of Anne Lamott, taking them as a group may simply be the better way to see them as a counterpoint to Elvis. Clearly, these bird illustrations have held up longer than Elvis’ reputation in our collective appreciation, but the history of bird illustration—a history that extends through the cave paintings of Lascaux and back undoubtably as far as music itself—has also suffered over the years from a reluctance by some to be truly considered art. Bird illustrations are not, after all, created to show the artist’s originality, but to show what the bird looks like for people who can’t go see the actual bird. Does anyone still doubt that Elvis was not created to show his originality, but rather to render a more manageable version of African-American music to white audiences? The inclusion of the birds in Elvis and Birds leaves the viewer wondering if these bird illustrations don’t have more in common with Elvis iconography than apparent at first glance.
Finally, let’s consider the thin, colorful, nearly opaque vertical lines of Elvis and Birds. They dominate the composition and obliterate your view. You really can’t get a good look at what is beneath with all of those lines there. Maybe given all the questions that the individual iconography of Elvis and of the birds brings up, it is better that way. Regardless, Ben Roe Jr. has done an exceptional job putting together a fine piece that raises those questions.