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ART REVIEW : Georgia Artist Brings Her Elvis Obsession to Town

January 04, 1989|KRISTINE McKENNA

Imagine seeing the contents of the mind of an adolescent girl neatly arranged on the walls of an art gallery. There would be telephones and teddy bears, record albums and valentines, and of course, countless souvenirs of The Boy.

For Joni Mabe, a 32-year-old artist from Georgia, Elvis Presley is The Boy, the ultimate and only Boy, and her "World Famous Traveling Elvis Museum," on view through Jan. 14 at the Zero One Gallery in Hollywood, showcases 10 years' worth of Elvis debris, lovingly collected and displayed.

An obsessive fan who claims that Elvis comes to her in dreams and tells her what to do, Mabe has accumulated what may be the definitive collection of Presley memorabilia and she's covered the walls of the gallery from floor to ceiling with hundreds of photographs, posters, press clippings, T-shirts, glittering trinkets and velvet paintings. Adopting a landfill approach to the question of what to do with an empty art gallery, Mabe invites us to binge on mass-media pop culture.

While Mabe has amassed a staggering abundance of all the standard Elvis merchandise, what distinguishes her collection are such rarities as water from Elvis' swimming pool, one of his canceled checks, dirt from his garden, a vial of Elvis sweat, and the piece de resistance of her collection, a toenail she found in the carpet at Graceland and displays with the label "Maybe Elvis' Toenail." (Asked how she verified its authenticity, Mabe comments, "Well, I can't be sure it's his, but who else would be clipping their toenails in the house?")

Irreverent enough to have titled a previous exhibition "Ten Men That I've Slept With," Mabe obviously has a sharp sense of humor, and her "Elvis Museum" takes fandom to such a ridiculous extreme it's hard to gauge her sincerity.

Moreover, the fact that her obsession with Elvis commenced on the day he died suggests that it's not the man himself that interests her so much as the ghoulish cult that has grown around him since his death. Whether or not it's her intent, she simultaneously spoofs the necrophilia that's come to taint the legacy of Elvis while further engorging this bloated myth.

It wouldn't be an Elvis event without something for sale and Mabe's concession stand offers packets of Elvis' hair, a color Xerox book written by Mabe, and large photos of the artist at Graceland planting a kiss on a plaster replica of the king.

Photos of Mabe engaged in various ritualistic Elvis activities pop up throughout the exhibition, suggesting that Mabe feels that her insanely devotional fandom is as worthy of our attention as the man who inspired it.

In technical terms, Mabe falls into the folk-art camp, converting thrift-store detritus into art. Presenting tackiness as a virtue (it's unpretentious and funny), her aesthetic has been shaped by Ripley's Believe It or Not, the lurid tabloid press and fundamentalist Christianity. Mabe is also a big fan of Jesus and much of her work--including the "Elvis Museum"--explores the intertwining of sex and religion. Drawing repeated parallels between Elvis and the Son of God, "The World Famous Traveling Elvis Museum" makes it clear that while Jesus may rule the kingdom of heaven, Elvis' province will be the kingdom of kitsch if Joni Mabe has any say in the matter.

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