Joe Light (1934–2005), Elvis, 1992
Enamel on wood, 51 1/4 x 36 1/4 in.; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Joe Light earned a modest income at Memphis flea markets, where he bought and sold pop-culture kitsch and castoffs in the forms of toys, comic books, magazines, and movies. He often converted the source materials into highly personal images that reflected his beliefs and values. Light’s portrait of the American singer and movie star Elvis Presley treats the entertainer with the reverence accorded to a religious icon: a crown floats about Elvis’s head, signifying his popular designation as the King of Rock and Roll. The crown contains the stylized imagery of a river, Light’s symbol for “crossing over” to salvation in the afterlife. A flower, emblematic for the artist of earthly temptation and vice, may reference the drug use that ended the singer’s life.
Joe Light (1934 - 2005) was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee, and spent his early childhood working on a farm. Light’s religious awakening - his conversion to Judaism while incarcerated for armed robbery - changed the course of his life and fueled his artistic output upon his release from prison in 1966. In the early 1970s, after settling in Memphis with his family, Light translated his religious fervor into the painting of wooden or cardboard signs installed around his yard to express his opinions and inspire the betterment of his neighborhood. His practice soon evolved into painting and sculpture, his two biggest influences being his spirituality and the vibrant, bold aesthetics of commercial culture.
Joe Light’s work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the High Museum of Art.
Learn more about Joe Light here.
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