Walking behind John Waters last week while he talked to a small gang of critics, reporters, and art world insiders about his pieces included in John Waters: Indecent Exposure at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I got everything I wanted: the tailored, outlandish clothes (black and gray suit printed with a geometric repeat, splashy red slip-ons), the big smile, the giant eyes, the pencil-thin mustache, the head shaped like a light bulb, and the candor and brilliance keen enough to cut glass.
The aphorisms flowed: “The only obscenity left in the art world is celebrity.” And his timing was perfect: “I hate celebrity, too.”
But this material—the photographs made to look like film stills from imaginary movies, interactive pieces, a G-rated version of Pink Flamingos acted entirely by children, some weighty installation pieces, Michael Jackson and Charles Manson puppets, sculptures, ephemera—this was all new to me.
Even with Waters as a guide, there was more to his work than I could grasp, because a lot of it references (often obscurely) the work of other artists and sensibilities I’m unfamiliar with—outsider art, if you will. And this despite the fact that I’m a longtime consumer of his films, books, and stage appearances.
Waters’ art is defined and liberated by his influences, his hometown of Baltimore, gay culture, DIY punk ethos, and a society obsessed with celebrity. Most of this work would have been lost on me were it not for his enthusiastic answers to the one question I had at every stop along his tour—Why?
The upside is, he wants to talk, to explain. He wants you to get it. But he doesn’t give everything away. Some stuff requires the viewer to put in the same years of research and thought that Waters went through to make this stuff. Who has that kind of time?
John Waters means different things to different people. Musical theater nerds might love the remake of Hairspray adapted from the Broadway musical that was adapted from a subversive film John Waters made in 1988. A film buff might consider only his early cult films that were played as midnight movies: Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), and Pink Flamingos, while clamouring for his rarely seen earlier movies, some of which are included in an installation at the BMA (the show runs through January 6, 2019).
At first glance, much of it seems pointless or contrived. Without packing the show’s catalog/coffee table book and reading along the way, even a seasoned collector of contemporary art might well stand staring for a long time in a losing struggle to comprehend. More research, thought, and archiving went into each work than I would have imagined. The more you know, the better it gets.
Waters prefaces his tour of the show by saying, “I am always trying to imagine the worst that can go wrong in the art business and the movie business. I am a fan of both. I always just make fun of things I love. That’s the point.” Every few steps, he reminded us, like a mantra, “I’m always trying to think of the worst thing that could happen in show business and celebrate it.”
“It’s about images,” he said. “I believe that people remember film stills. They don’t remember film plots. Everybody remembers From Here to Eternity and making out in the water. Who knows what the movie was about? That thing with Divine with the red dress in Pink Flamingos is more famous than anything that happened in the movie.”
There is an urgency to his photographic art—maybe to everything he does—implied in the phrase that continued to crop up: “I had to…”
His output as a fine art photographer began out of necessity. In 1992, he needed, but didn’t have a still for Multiple Maniacs. “So I just put the VHS on and took a picture in the dark on the TV screen. And that’s what started it, because it had a different quality. It doesn’t work digitally. I still have to take it with real film with a camera. This was the first one,” he said, pointing to a photograph entitled “Divine in Ecstasy.” “So I finally had a still. This is kind of how it started.”
Waters curates frames from others' movies or photographs into assemblages all his own. “I’m going into other people’s movies, taking images, and putting them in a new narrative.” So curator as creator, he filched Ingmar Bergman’s Grim Reaper from The Seventh Seal and spun it into “this famous shot of [the Kennedys] getting off the plane. But I had Bergman’s Death following them, which was true, though.” The import of the original photograph is tragic: the president and first lady deplaning in Texas on November 22, 1963. Now add Death with the sickle shadowing them, and you have “Grim Reaper.” Why is it okay to laugh? “Camelot” and the superficiality of stylish Jackie pushes JFK’s horrific death into the background. Years of cinematic depictions dull the shock. Waters turns up the volume on the iconography and lowers it on the gruesome head wound, while commenting on his obsession with Bergman’s films of the ’50s and ’60s.
“And Ingmar Bergman, I saw his films at the same time [as the Kennedy assassination]. That was it. I loved him from then on.” Fine, but I was getting lost. Here and elsewhere in the show, Waters references movies (not to mention other cultural totems and taboos) so obscurely that only someone who has watched every film ever made will get what’s going on. Luckily that someone and I have been friends for 30 years.
So when I got home, I called my friend for help. As soon as I showed him “Grim Reaper” and mentioned another Bergman-influenced sequence, “Puking in Cinema,” the floodgates opened.
“I bet if you showed me the stills from “Puking in Cinema,” I’d know what films they were all from,” said my friend. And he did, rattling off the titles while doing push ups: “Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Persona, and The Silence all have puking. So, now there’s puking in Waters' movies, and I guess his art, too.”
I don’t know if this is the correct interpretation or not, but aesthetics before investigation. If it’s just puking, who cares? I’d hate “Puking in Cinema” if I hadn’t had my friend. But now I don’t, because I realize it’s reverential through the cinephile lens. It certainly contextualized Waters’s quote about his love for Bergman, and maybe why he’s called the Prince and not the King of puke (that would have to be Bergman himself).
I was on my own to interpret and figure out most of Waters’ work for myself. About “Lana Backwards,” Waters said, “Lana Turner. I always noticed they kept her one beat longer when she left a room. The director never cut. I was fascinated at that. I realized women wanted to see the back of her outfits, and the men wanted to see her ass.” Eight stills of Lana’s backside prove his point. Collectively, unconsciously, moviegoers agreed implicitly that they needed a longer look at Lana’s ass in the days before pressing pause. But only John Waters noticed.
His habit of “going into things no one else notices in a movie” sharpened his democratic eye, such that, as far as he’s concerned, “there is no such thing as a bad movie. You can find one frame in there that’s great. When you don’t like the movie, stop watching it as a moviegoer. Watch it like you’re at an art show. Just concentrate on the furniture or the color blue, and then all movies are good.”
I sat starstruck during my private Q&A with Waters. I contemplated his mustache, and saw a few greys mixed in the black line. I wondered if it’s tattooed, then remembered it’s not, because he once let Justin Bieber pencil it in. I forgot every question I had. Instead of kicking me out of my chair and shouting, “Next!” he graciously moved the conversation for me. Intuitively, he understood the question at the heart of my blathering: What’s up with the marriage of true crime, celebrity, and the play on tabloid who-wore-it-best in his "Manson Copies…" photo juxtapositions? Who but John Waters noticed Charles Manson’s evolving fashion?
“Manson Copies” is a series of paired photos. Each set puts a photo of Manson beside a photo of a celebrity, and in each set, Manson and the celebrity are somehow sartorially similar. “The first one—I saw this picture of Manson I had never seen with his hair cut like Divine’s in Pink Flamingos. [“Manson Copies Divine’s Hairdo.”] So I did that. Then, I had to wait for every parole hearing that Manson had, so I could see what his new look was. I just photographed it off the TV screen like I did for everything. Then, I had to go and find news stories of celebrities that were facing the same way in the same outfit. I had to look through everything to find a picture to match Manson’s parole hearing look, so I could say [Manson] copies this one and copies this one. I’d have to look through everything. I have Richard Gere with the same sunglasses on. Brad Pitt with the beard like [Manson] had.”
Waters gets a pass for things other people would be called weird or creepy for acknowledging. Why? His wink and nod give us permission to glimpse into stuff that was pulpy—like true crime—but has becomes mainstream, because he’s been our guide into our depraved world for 50 years. He’s not condoning it. He’s pointing it out. He’s removed from it. His art doesn’t show corpses. Instead, Charles Manson is depicted as the celebrity he became—a failed musician and cult leader, safely imprisoned, which is turning up the volume on high camp. But, lower the volume and Manson is a murderer, responsible for taking lives from victims and perpetrators.
There’s a lot of Dorothy Malone in Waters’ work, not only in “Manson copies…” but again in an eight-image sequence devoted to her popped collar, “Dorothy Malone’s Collar,” and in “Divine Copies Dorothy Malone’s Collar,” and in “Peyton Place...The Movie.” I asked my friend about this. Again, he rattled off the facts.
“Probably because she won Best Supporting Actress for Written on the Wind and she slowjacked the Oscar during her acceptance speech, and played a serial killer in Basic Instinct. Then, there’s Peyton Place, which was a banned book, and bestseller, and a nighttime soap with her.” He actually said much more, but I forgot everything but the highlights—just the very worst thing to do to the statue when winning Best Supporting Actress.
Celebrity rarely, if ever, accompanies talent. With that in mind, Waters pays homage to people who are known for nothing more substantial than the most vapid kind of fame. “Melissa” is a photograph of white clouds against a blue sky with the words: Starring Melissa Rivers. That’s it. That’s the photograph, and it’s a lot of things—all of them bad, so again I stood wondering, why? Once I found out, I wanted to own it.
“I’m always trying to celebrate the things that don’t work in show business,” Waters said, by way of introducing “Melissa,” which purports to be the opening credit in a movie, but a movie that never happened and never will. It may not be the stand-out piece in the show, but it made me laugh, because it’s a fantasy piece. Joan Rivers’ daughter would be hard to place on a seating chart at a dinner party. The irony to Melissa Rivers is that there is no irony.
“There is no credit,” Waters explained. “This is a completely made up credit. That ‘Starring’ above your name means you’re first billing, and Melissa, God bless her, she never was first billing in any movie that I know of. So, in a way, it’s a sad piece. If any piece is a little mean, it might be this one. But she did star in a movie where she reenacted the death-suicide of her father. She acted finding the body. So, I feel, in bad taste, we’re sister and brother.”
For Waters, unwatchable is “the worst thing you can say about a movie. It’s the worst review you can get. It’s literally unwatchable. So, I want to think, what movie can be in that category? It’s an extreme one. I had a friend who said, ‘That’s the most irresponsible movie I ever saw.’ I said, “It’s not that good.’ That would be something that is really important.” “Melissa” might fall into this category.
The simplest pieces are the most acute. One work, baldly entitled “9/11,” pairs movie title shots from Dr. Dolittle 2 and A Knight’s Tale. “This is, I think, the scariest, saddest one in the whole thing,” Waters says. “You look at these two titles and you think, Why? They’re the most forgettable movies that no one talks about. They aren’t good or bad. Why did he put these together? Well, It took me awhile to research and find out, but these were the two movies that were playing on the 9/11 planes that day.” How did he research this? Who did he call? Weighing the banality of the in-flight entertainment against the awareness of imminent death and tragedy felt heavy and trivial at the same time. A few seconds were needed to work through that. “But, they never put them in. They never even got that far. So, if there’s any optimism—it would have been worse.”
The childhood puppeteer in Waters shines forth in a few pieces, although we’re way beyond Punch and Judy territory here. One disturbing piece in particular, “Control,” could seem, if taken at face value, to condone domestic violence, although anybody familiar with Waters knows that would never happen. Still, what in the world is a Barbie-sized Tina Turner doing strung up as a marionette manipulated by Ike Turner who looks like he just slid across the stage on his knees Chuck-Berry style? Again, why?
“I liked her best when she was with him. I saw them in Baltimore in 1964, she had a mustache and a ratty mink coat, and them in a broken down school bus. That was the best show I ever saw in my life. I agree, she left, and she should have. She’s in Switzerland, about as far away as she could ever get from Ike Turner. But still, I went to the Tina Turner museum and there is no mention of Ike in it at all, so I just want to remember how great they were no matter how horrible their personal life was. I always stick up for the bad guy. I visit friends in jail. When someone gets a bad review, I call them the next morning. I’m always the one that will call you if something goes bad, so I’m trying to remember something that did go very very very bad. Kind of put it in a way that puts a good spin on it and remember maybe the one second that was great.”
He stopped next at a long red-velvet theater curtain extending almost the length of one wall, and pulled the curtain to reveal: “Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot,” only this time “I had to search porn to find pictures of assholes that had no hands, mouths, arms, penises—anything invading its moment in the sun. You can never find them them alone. They’re really rare.” The curtain is there, he explained, “in case your parents are coming over, or the IRS is auditing you.” Somebody asked him which was his favorite. He laughed and walked over to the last photo. “Here’s the dirty foot,” he said triumphantly. Again, he “had to…” Why the dirty foot? “A dirty foot, first of all, is up when you’re having sex, right? But a dirty foot is the one thing you will never find in porn, because they always wipe it off whenever it’s shown. There is someone there whose job is to wipe off the bottom. So, it was really hard to find. It was like Rosebud!”
While poring over the exhibition catalog of the 160 pieces in the BMA show, I consulted my 21-year-old daughter, who knew that “he made movies with his freak friends.” And added, “He doesn’t seem like a Taurus.” Weird somehow that my daughter knows Waters, but my parents, who are his age, 72, do not.
Could Waters have imagined “Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot” hanging permanently at the BMA? He said, ”The Baltimore Museum, I could have, because [former BMA curator] Brenda Richardson was the first person here that gave me a full film retrospective before I made Hairspray, before I was safe. People were outraged that city money was being spent. The censor board lady went crazy and everything. So the Baltimore museum was the first artistic institution that ever embraced me. So, yes, if anywhere was going to do it, I could have imagined it here.”
“‘Gay is Not Enough.’ It isn’t. It’s a good start. It helps but I am not a separatist. I think that heterosexuals can be great artists. They can’t be good florists, but they can be great artists. It has some sensibility about being an outsider or being other, no matter what—gay or straight or minority or anything that’s not fitting in with everybody.”
When I look at “Gay is Not Enough,” all I see are the words “Gay Is Not Enough” against a blurry background sending an at best ambiguous message. Again, with my Knowledgeable Friend:
“I don’t know,” he said. “ You have to show it to me.”
As soon as I turned my phone toward the image, he came back with, “It’s the typeface for the title sequence of the film of Jacqueline Susann’s novel Once Is not Enough (terrible, out of control, still got nominated for an Oscar), The blurry background is the water on the frosted glass door where Kirk Douglas is showering.”
I told him what Waters said about gay sensibility not being enough.
“Like he said, it’s not enough. You have to be the most extreme version of whatever you want to be. If you’re fat, you have to be Divine eating a meatball sub. If you’re skinny, you have to be anorexic.”
“What’s John Waters superlative?”
“His delivery. He’s the best person to say it.”
I was very happy walking around living in John Waters’ world for awhile, and I was sad when we reached the final exhibit in John Waters: Indecent Exposure, a room lined with a row of booths, each with a courtesy box of Kleenex. “The very last room are peepshows, which I always liked, but in them are my very first movies I ever made: Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, and Eat Your Makeup. They shouldn’t really be in movie theaters or anything. It’s much better in a peepshow on a loop. They are really ephemera. They were movies I made when I was a kid.”
The tour ends where all of his career began, so for those without much insight into John Waters, understanding where Indecent Exposure is heading really is the beginning. This show reaches back to the filming of 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. Intentionally, or not, showing the early films on a loop juxtaposed to explicit peepshow content is as sweetly charming as nickelodeons of the past—almost. His work in the ’60s seeded the visual art he created beginning in the early ’90s. Divine’s eternal return on the screens in the booths pays tender homage to their friendship, and continues as a thread throughout not only Waters’ films, but in his visual art, books, and live appearances.
During our one-on-one conversation, I asked Waters about his kindness and his lifelong friendships, particularly with the actors he dubbed the “Dreamlanders,” the cast of his earliest films. “I’m still friends with the ones that are alive,” he said. “I still see Mink [Stole] and Mary Vivian Pierce. We’re still friends, and to me, that’s the success of living. That you do have friends. That’s what keeps you sane. That’s the only thing that really matters, that you have friends that have lasted for awhile. I don’t trust people who have no long-time friends. I mean, ‘Why?’ That’s the only comfort that you’re going to have, because your parents are going to die, usually before. So basically, I’m saying my friends are very important to have for me, and that’s another reason I live in Baltimore. I have people here. I’m showing movies I made fifty years ago out there, and the sad part is, many of them aren’t here with me. Divine, he’d be much happier if he wasn’t dead. He’d rather be here.”