King Me: An Interview with Laura Elkins

KING ME, Studies in the Uncivilized World, Installation View. Photo courtesy The Fridge.

Tucked back in an alley off of 8th Street in Eastern Market, The Fridge is an unimposing gallery space; and perhaps it’s that quiet intimacy that makes it such an interesting location for KING ME: Studies in the Uncivilized World – a show about authority and domination.

Showcasing works by DC artists, KING ME is at once political and quirky. It deals with power struggles over everything from gay marriage to consumerism and uses a variety of media, including thread, film, acrylic, and Tyvek.

Highlights include Seleshi Feseha’s obsessively-crafted thread collages, Stanley Squirewell’s striking use of mixed media, and numerous pieces by Laura Elkins, whose first lady self-portraits particularly stand out.

I sat down with Elkins to talk about some of her work on display at KING ME, and the inspiration behind it.

Laura Elkins, Self as Ladybird with Catfish, Acrylic on canvas with wood frame. Photo courtesy The Fridge.

JCM: A lot of these pieces are from your White House collection. When did you start that collection, and where did it come from?

LE: When I first moved here 2000, a friend came up to visit who had tickets to a White House tour. She invited me along – I’d never been to the White House – and I saw the collection of the official first lady portraits. The official style was a mature woman with no determinable age whatsoever. You look like yourself, but you have no wrinkles, and there’s no sense of who you really are.

I was doing some portraits at the time, and I thought this could be a really interesting device for a self-portrait.

JCM: It seems like you’re still very much living in the process with these first ladies.

LE: Oh yes. Now what I’m working on is trying to combine imagery from HOMEwRAP with these first lady paintings.

It goes through phases, but I keep coming back to the first ladies because it’s so flexible that as time goes on it allows me to address so many issues. It started out personal, about being middle aged, aging as women in our society, and then as time went on they were just perfect for political issues – although the first ladies and the issues don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

Laura Elkins, "Self as Hilary in Black Face, Self as Barack in White Face," Oil on Canvas. Photo courtesy The Fridge.

JCM: “Inspector Vindictivenessisnotinthelaw” from your HOMEwRAP series really stood out to me.

LE: The theme of this show – domination – that’s really what this painting epitomizes.

I started the series HOMEwRAP in response to an illegal search and seizure of our home by the DC government. And they’re painted on HomeWrap,  because it all had to do with the renovation of our home and I had all this Tyvek around. I often try to have the painting support somehow relate to the content, and it turns out Tyvek is a really good painting material. Plus, it’s archival.

They are, in some instances, ‘portraits’ of people I know. The titles come from actual quotes during the debacle.

Laura Elkins, Inspector Vindictivenessisnotinthelaw, Acrylic on Tyvek. Photo courtesy The Fridge.

JCM: I know a lot of people also respond to “Self as Lady Bird with Catfish.”

This was one of the earlier ones, but I did repaint it to respond to Katrina. You never know. I like them all one way or another, but I’m always surprised at people’s response.

JCM: “Self as Lady Bird <3ɛ> Jackie” has really taken off.

LE: Who would’ve guessed?

JCM: That wasn’t something you expected?

LE: The irony for me is that I sort of pride myself that all these self-portraits I do from life. They’re performative. Sometimes I find myself up on a ladder to get the right angle, or I hold a pistol or have on a snorkel. And I think it provides an immediacy. This one – because I can’t paint myself in profile – I took an iPhone and tried to figure out how do I do this? But then for some reason, that’s the one the press picked up on.

You know, I don’t spend a lot of time reading about the first ladies. It’s really a visual device. People think it’s about the first ladies, but it’s about me.

KING ME: Studies in the Uncivilized World runs through March 29.

The Fridge is located at  516 1/2 8th Street SE, Rear Alley, and is open Thursday – Saturday, 12-8pm & Sunday 1-5pm.
Questions? Contact Emma Fisher: 202-550-2208

Joanna moved to DC in 2010 knowing she’d love it, and as usual she was right. She enjoys eating fried things, drinking scotch and smoking cigars, and makes up for the damage done by snacking on organic oats and barley and walking long distances to wherever with her dog Henry. Joanna now lives with her husband and said dog in Los Angeles, and they all miss DC terribly. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at

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