New York

Joni Lee Mabe

Franklin Furnace

Some of the scariest films have been in documentary form—Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, Frederick Wiseman’s High School. In gallery-oriented art, the job of documentation is usually done through photography. Occasionally a social-critic-cum-artist like Hans Haacke will be taken at his word, although reinterpolating cultural logos is hardly the same thing as editing and framing the world. Joni Lee Mabe’s installation of collected and homemade Elvis Presley memorabilia was such a magnanimous critique of the phenomena surrounding the dead singer that it worked best when seen as a conditioned truth, too indiscriminately conceived to be art but too blindly subjective about its content to be anything else.

Mabe turned Franklin Furnace’s gallery and entranceway into a shrine of sorts, with Presley photos, clippings, and souvenirs plastered from ceiling to floor across every scrap of wall and in several display cases. Her own works—crudely sweet collages with glue-and-glitter love messages to the beyond, and a handmade costume or two—broke the monotony. She also participated in her own installation, intermittently appearing in clothes that she had decorated with Elvis buttons and patches. But the darkest and most satisfying current in the show involved semicandid photographs of Presley lookalikes, snapped on the street, apparently by Mabe. Fiercely if invisibly sexual, these images were where everything special about this show happened.

In one of them, a youngish man with overgrown ’50s coif, sideburns, love handles, and bubble sunglasses stood in front of a donut stand or a 7-Eleven, presumably in Athens, Georgia, where Mabe lives. He would have resembled Presley to passersby who were obsessed with the star’s later image, but the fellow’s surly expression and stiffened arms exuded confusion at this photographic intrigue (and maybe a slight case of fear of idea-women). His rawness, and that of other lookalikes in similarly awkward shots, “pouting” and “swiveling”—or alternately sweating and waddling—made Presley look like the gentrified sex symbol he’d quickly devolved into being. Candid shots of the singer himself, sans the trappings of the talent that gave him his meaning, showed an average thug.

In a video available for viewing by interested visitors, Mabe, questioned by a TV news reporter, described her work in plain, strategy-free terms. Asked if it was art, she could only admit that it was neurotic and compulsive. Asked why in one of her own pieces a bust of Elvis was juxtaposed with little paintings of Einstein and Jesus, she replied, “Gee, I don’t know, they just seem to belong together.” In fact, the only real difference between Mabe’s “art” and any other Presley fanatic’s collection of bric-a-brac was her almost mystical confidence not just in the singer’s broad significance but in the informative capabilities of her obsession. This show, like other recent works by artists concerned with transcribing interior monologues intact—say, Nan Goldin’s slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a work in progress—suggested that should art collapse under the weight of its overworked surface, as pop music did in the mid ’70s, certain contemporary ideas would survive even in an unsophisticated, “punk” state.

Dennis Cooper