Artists Shake Up Elvis Presley’s Image

“Look guys, if you’re just going to stare at me, I’m going to bed.” -Elvis Presley

Whether he’d like it now or not, nearly 33 years after his death, people from all walks of life are still staring at the man.

“His image is more recognizable now than it was at the pinnacle of his career,” says Warren Perry, the curator of ‘One Life: Echoes of Elvis’, an exhibit currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

“Echoes of Elvis” showcases works by artists created after 1977, the year Presley died. But the show was organized with a special anniversary in mind: January 8, 2010, what would have been his 75th birthday. Therefore, the exhibit explores the many transformations the recording artist underwent during his lifetime: the rebel youth, the sex symbol, army sergeant, movie star, Las Vegas regular.

More than a signature lip curl or hip swivel, Elvis continues to represent different things to different people, says Perry. Even today, his legacy is filled with nuance, and people (like folk artist Howard Finster) have depicted the former pop star as a baby, a soldier and even as Roman emperor Julius Caesar.

“To the Portrait Gallery, he’s an American icon and he’s a great American,” Perry says. “And with respect to this exhibition, we like to think he’s also a lot fun.”

One way that Perry and his colleagues have livened up the museum atmosphere is by hiring Will Debley, an Elvis tribute artist, to perform periodically at the exhibit since it opened earlier this year.

“There’s a lot of Elvises out there but I think the Portrait Gallery picked me because they wanted a professional artist,” Debley says. “I’ve done probably six events for them so far.”

Watch Will Debley perform “Love Me”:

Debley, a native of Silver Spring, Md., saw Elvis for the first time when he was 5 years old on a re-broadcast of ‘Aloha from Hawaii.’

“The main thing that drew me to him was the sheer magnitude of his charisma on stage,” Debley says. “It was just a magical thing that no other artist could reproduce.”

“One Life: Echoes of Elvis” runs through August 29, 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery.

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