Disgraceland art show offers a parade of Presleys

A warning to those who revere the late Elvis Presley as a haloed patron saint of rock – a new art exhibit is showing the king of rock ’n’ roll at his most ghoulish and zombified.

Using plaster Elvis busts from Honest Ed’s – a Toronto staple sold at the iconic department store for nearly thirty years – 10 local artists who dabble in the macabre are celebrating Presley’s place in the afterlife with the exhibit God Save The King: The Faces of Death of Elvis Presley, running at Disgraceland until Aug. 21.

The artists, among them Rue Morgue magazine’s art director Gary Pullin and shock-rocker Corpusse Ashton have re-animated the busts as a hell hound, a zombie, Gene Simmons from KISS, and in the case of curator Nat Vegas, as Jesus Christ.

Ms. Vegas, a Montreal native who was fascinated by the busts upon moving to Toronto, sees Presley’s modern-day image as beyond that of a rock ’n’ roll icon. “It’s almost religious, the way people look at him. Even at Honest Ed’s, the busts are with the Virgin Mary.” She chose a crown of thorns made of guitar strings and a sacred heart made of pill bottles. “It’s really quite sad to see how he ended his life, so isolated, with so many pills,” she said.

Mr. Pullin, a life-long Elvis fan, was attracted to the exhibit because owning the painted bust is “like a rite of passage” for many Torontonians. “Many of my friends have them in their homes,” he said.

According to Honest Ed’s general manager Russell Lazar, the locally produced busts are the store’s most popular item. An employee for the last 53 years, he has seen several Elvis fans taking wedding photos in the store. “I always give them a free one,” he said.

Several years ago, a year-long drought of Elvis busts occurred when the supplier’s production mold was damaged. “I was even taking calls from all over the U.S., telling people we didn’t have them any more,” Mr. Lazar said. “It’s really incredible how much people love these things.”

“They’re crudely made,” Mr. Pullin said. “The eyes are always a little bit off, but I think some of those imperfections are happy accidents.” Mr. Pullin has adorned his bust with demonic horns because Presley, who died in 1977 at the age of 42, “wrestled with his own personal demons.”

For the purists, the exhibit’s posturing of post-mortem Presley is not meant to diminish his legacy. Instead, it celebrates the singer’s influence on horror culture and dark music, having inspired musicians like The Cramps, The Misfits, Nick Cave and the appropriately titled Dead Elvi.

“There were many tragedies in music in the fifties and I think he embodies a lot of that,” Mr. Pullin said, referring to many of the dark, brooding images of Presley throughout his initial years of stardom. “You listen to a song like Blue Moon, and that echo, the sadness in his voice is almost ghostly. Even Hound Dog – I think of a hell hound. You can play off that easily and put these macabre spins on it.”

Despite their gruesome intentions, both Mr. Pullin and Ms. Vegas are fondest of Elvis in his 1950s prime, with the gold lamé suit, worn for the last time when he played his first of two shows at Maple Leaf Gardens on April 2, 1957.

“That’s how you want to remember him,” Ms. Vegas said.

God Save the King: The Faces of Death of Elvis Presley appears at Disgraceland (965 Bloor St. W) until August 21, when they will be auctioned on eBay.

This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail on August 21, 2011.

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