Scott McCloud, in his incredible book Understanding Comics talked about the power of the icon, and closure. Closure is about putting two different elements together to create content… The power of the icon is that it is an essentialized form that people can relate to—a picture with a thousand words. When I’m painting a famous person, I’m hoping I’m able to make a great portrait of scene that has the productive baggage of what they can mean metaphorically as icons—while not like a "smiley face" icon that people can suture into and become, they are figures that have a common point of reference. In thinking about how they relate to the person and scene, and then the theme or narrative I am employing the subject matter for, I hope the viewer creates the closure of what this might mean, how it all fits together, in their own mind to create dynamic meaning and feeling that they will remember in this artful moment.
For Elvis, it was amazing for me to see his famous comeback special, where for the first time I realized this was a real human being that, despite the politics, really helped to change culture. When you look at his early appearances on television, you see an incredible young man who had this impassioned energy to help create rock n’ roll, and to take all he learned from African American culture—this is the colonizing politics, unfortunately—and marry it with the hillbilly music he also loved, to help come up with something new—building of the great work from the black performers he revered (again, part of the politics). But if you like Elvis, you like to think he acknowledged that history and influence, and continued, as "white trash from across the tracks" to commiserate with the outsider, beyond a patriarchal phallocentric power structure, helping to promote what his idol, the gay man James Dean, began, to give a voice to a youth culture and to change attitudes and the world.
When I do Elvis, I play Elvis all the time, or watch Elvis movies. It would drive Andrew my boyfriend crazy a little bit because there would be Elvis on all the time in the house, and then when I would take breaks I’d be watching Elvis. I’m trying to get underneath what it’s about. And then also, I’m consciously thinking about Warhol and people like that. I feel like painting Elvis is a weird, you know… Warhol did Elvis too, and in some ways, I feel like Warhol really loved the figures that he was painting.
If Warhol is constantly repeating Elvis over and over again, it’s not who Elvis was as a talent, what happens is the risk of that redundancy that we lose who they are as people or we forget their history. Elvis is a fat joke now. I don’t think for Warhol it was about Elvis as a person, or "Elvis the Incredible Talent We Loved," it was about our reception of Warhol, and also what you’re saying too, to make it more humble by reducing it. What I think for me is important, is to bring back who they were as people, and like any portraitist, try to essentialize what it was about them that made them so great. (From an interview with Ross Bleckner, 2005)
When I made this painting, which was from a photo of Elvis as a young man as its source image, I listened to all of Elvis’s extensive oeuvre, from his early Sun Sessions recordings to his last 70’s Las Vegas concert appearances. What was uncanny to me is in the end, he resembles an older Elvis in a young man’s profile—but his lambchops appear and he looks like he is weary and wary of the world, but still a great king.