New York

Jeff Way

Pam Adler

Elvis and Jesus: that’s electric. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll meets the Man from Galilee for a cosmic revival. Whatever Presley’s private hell may have been, his public piety never faltered; he gloried in gospel, and, when he sang to Jesus, it felt real. Even toward the end, with his melting-butter body cinched by a Bible Belt of a corset, Presley could still turn an upholstered Vegas sewer into a dusty revival tent in Tennessee.

Jeff Way’s “Elvis and Jesus” show was an intelligent coupling of god and God. Not corny, not smartass, not easy. It could have been all of those things; instead, it was a crisp, multi-leveled meditation on the liberated cliché. Way chose obvious, public-domain images of Elvis and Jesus and made them brand-new. It was a lesson in advanced artistic reclamation. Clearly, Way knows that just because something has taken place doesn’t mean it has happened.

Two paintings dominate the show (smaller works are all variations on them). One is of Elvis from his mid-glitter period (before he turned into a side of beef in a satin straitjacket), and it has a hot, color-Xerox palette; but this Xerox is over eight feet high, and executed in oils. Looking like a video image with an out-of-control horizontal band (multiple, ghostly Elvises echo over the full-frame Elvis so that a succession of heads drift down over his chest and into his crotch), it’s a wonderfully electric image. With Presley as a formula that’s slipping madly out of control, it’s both perfectly Presley and a monumentally perverse poster of a painting.

The painting of Jesus is allover patterning. A grid of heads (in a ubiquitous “Good Shepherd” pose) is organized into a cross through an acidy color scheme. Unlike Presley, who is treated with photographic fidelity, the representation of Jesus is extremely simplistic—gestural daubs of color limning out the suggestion of a face. The heads repeat into Pop wallpaper and here and there, sweetly, an eye winks in the best 3-D, novelty-key-chain tradition. Suddenly, through this idiosyncratic irreverence, Way establishes a path for Jesus into Elvis country. He makes it clear that all those vulgar, homogenized renditions are exaltations. When Way sends his Jesus and Elvis, transformed but still authoritative, back into the consumer culture that lives off the stability of their allure, he is also reaffirming the worthiness of the artist’s pursuit of the last word. No image is final.

Richard Flood