Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: 'John Waters: Indecent Exposure'


Wait a minute. John Waters is an artist? A rather multifaceted artist? I consider myself a fan, but this is news to me. That Waters is not just the uncontested King of Trash-ola but also a photographer and collaborative sculptor who has been the subject of his own art show is a revelation. The works displayed in that show at the Baltimore Museum of Art (of course) are featured in a new book called John Waters: Indecent Exposure.

So what should you expect from Waters’s non-cinematic art? Oh honey, you know what to expect! You’ll laugh! You’ll die from shock! You’ll puke! You’ll see the faces of Hollywood stars projected onto butt cheeks (Rear Projection, 2009)! You’ll see a disturbing 3D tableaux involving an infant with Michael Jackson’s adult head crawling toward a tyke with Charles Manson’s deranged coconut (Playdate, 2006). You’ll see some of cinema’s most iconic moments subtitled in pig Latin (Pig Latin, 2008)! You’ll see a Jackie O doll dolled up as Divine (Jackie Copies Divine’s Look, 2001)! You’ll see Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot (Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, 1996)!

So like Pink Flamingos and Polyester, Waters’s museum-worthy work delights in scatology, celebrity, and hilarity. One does not usually expect to laugh out loud when viewing fine art, so prepare yourself for that shocker too.

Waters’s work will be a gas for those with a taste for bad taste, which makes the presentation in Indecent Exposure a bit frustrating. While his photos of his TV screen and weird sculptures completely lack pretension, the layout and text content of this book sometimes succumbs to that vice. The images are often shrunk down to postage-stamp size to make room for vast vistas of empty, white space, which is a crime that too many art books commit. 

As for a series of analytical essays, the only writer who really taps into the spirit of Waters’s work is Robert Starr, whose “Queering the Pitch” is both enlightening and funny. The others feel inappropriately academic. Initially, I wondered how Waters, himself, would react to such pieces. Would he roll his eyes at them or revel in them as scrumptiously kitsch? Based on the lengthy interview with the artist that wraps up the text side of Indecent Exposure, I think Waters may unironically approve. Here he reveals that there is actually serious, artistic consideration behind works depicting title cards of the shitty movies that were supposed  be screened on the planes destroyed on 9/11 or a picture of a flower that squirts viewers in the face if they get too close to it. The interview is also very valuable for what it reveals about Waters’s artistic process, such as the fact that he conceptualizes his sculptures while Tony Gardener, the guy who created killer-doll Chuckie and the fake breasts Selma Blair wears in A Dirty Shame, sculpts those uncanny likenesses of Jackson, Manson, and the rest. Needless to say, the interview is the biggest kick textual kick in Indecent Exposure

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