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For artist Laura Elkins, making self-portraits “was a way to keep myself intact.” That the “self” evolved into a topless Lady Bird Johnson in front of the Tidal Basin may bear some explanation.
When Elkins and her family arrived on Capitol Hill from Louisiana in January 2000, the artist-architect, who had previously specialized in large-scale constructions, began dabbling in self-portraiture on packing cardboard and other found objects as she struggled to unpack her studio materials into her newer, smaller home. “Isn’t moving considered third on the stress chart, just after a death in the family and divorce?” Elkins muses. “A dramatic move calls into question identity. In this case, moving and all that [it] entails coincided with realizing that I am middle-aged.”
Last summer, when Elkins accompanied a visiting friend on a tour of the White House, she noticed the official paintings of the first ladies on display. “I wanted a kind of device for doing it,” she says of her desire to render herself. The formal, undeniably idealized portraits of these women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, became her “Rembrandt’s hat,” she says.
First, she painted herself as Lady Bird Johnson and as Mamie Eisenhower in their White House-sanctioned poses and settings. Then, mad inspiration struck: “I thought, What if I disrobe these women?”
Elkins’ White House Collection portrays her in the guises of several first ladies, sometimes clothed and sometimes unclothedand sometimes depicting only a detail, such as a breast or hand. The indulgent brushes of the official White House artists sometimes hid the ages of their subjects, but Elkins has chosen to slip into the role of first lady in proudly mature splendor.
She’s created a dozen such portraitsin various sizes; in acrylics, oils, and sometimes both; and on fabrics as well as canvasin the past year. Self-Portrait as Mamie Eisenhower, which shows the brown-banged matron with gloved fingers extended toward a flowerlike protrusion, is painted on a turquoise-and-pink Atomic Age-patterned cloth that sometimes peeks through the acrylic. (“That was supposed to be my son’s curtains!” Elkins reveals.) At Signal 66, where the piece is currently on display as part of the show “New Talent III,” it’s paired with Self-Portrait as Mamie Undressing, in which a pink gown is peeled down to Mrs. Ike’s waist and the face bears a slightly mischievous expression. Same pose, same flowersvery different effect.
“I’ve probably done more with Mamie than anything elsebeing a child in the ’50s,” says Elkins. “She was such an icon.”
So far, Elkins has limited her subjects to Johnson, Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, Grace Coolidge, and Jackie Kennedy. When Elkins painted her likeness as Coolidgewhose official portrait, complete with presidential pet, Elkins describes as “grandiose and elaborate”she substituted her own mutt, Spot, for Coolidge’s dignified white collie, Rob Roy. Whereas Coolidge appealed to Elkins as a subject because she doesn’t hold a place in popular culture, Kennedy presented the opposite sort of challenge: “People advised me not to do Jackie because she’s been done so muchWarhol and allbut my take is very different.” So far, Elkins has painted the queen of Camelot twicethe first time in a five-panel, full-length nude entitled Self-Portrait as Jackie Stacked.
“The hairdo seems to be what tells you who it is,” Elkins laughs. When a friend first saw the naked-as-a-jaybird Jackie, she knew exactly whom Elkins had portrayed. “It was that helmet hair that did it.” Pamela Murray Winters
“Selections From the White House Collection” is on view at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to Aug. 2. “New Talent III” is on view at Signal 66 to Aug. 25.