The desire to defile oozes through John Waters’s art work–along with, not incidentally, a dose of ejaculate.
If any single theme dominates the cult Hollywood film director's exhibition, “Beverly Hills John,” at the Sprüth Magers gallery in London, it's Waters’s charming passion for rolling around in the mud and dirt of America.
“He just revels in trashy culture,” says gallery director Craig Burnett. “He digs into the dirtiest, low culture of America.”
Waters is now best known for Hairspray—especially since the 1988 film was transformed into a beloved and pretty darn family friendly musical in 2002.
However, he first earned his name for his infamously controversial 1972 Pink Flamingos, a comedy which involved rape, castration, cannibalism, and (most notoriously) dog feces-eating.
“Beverly Hills John” is the Waters who bathes in that corruption and ugliness. He makes something perversely beautiful and funny by mixing high and low into a delightful mish-mash.
“Brainiac” is a play on the cover of the National Enquirer. Instead, Waters' National Brainiac features the famously petite Joan Didion puffy, distorted and clutching a hoagie under the headline “Joan Didion Hits 250 pounds.”
To her left is notorious and now-elderly womanizer Philip Roth under the headline “Philip Roth Dates 70 Year Old Woman.” To her right is the famously prolific Joyce Carol Oates with the headline “Help! I've Got Writer's Block.”
“Cancel Ansel” is Waters’s defilement of classic Ansel Adams photographs. He takes the pristine black-and-white images of the American landscape but photoshops in errors and typically tacky items, like a plastic flamingo.
“He’s doubly corrupting in that he takes photographs that were once considered art work and defiling it with images of modernity, but he's also defiling these images of the American West,” says Burnett.
Burnett describes Waters as someone who is “super ebullient,” though he adds “there's also a lot of looking back and a sense of loss.”
Specifically, there appears to be a strong yearning when it comes to the raunchy, illicit, porny gay subculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
When one first enters the gallery, a light-blue baby stroller is on display. But since this is an exhibition by Waters, you know this is no ordinary, innocent pram.
Before noticing the S&M black leather studded harness on it, a fairly large, ejaculating penis catches the eye. Titled “Bill's Stroller,” it is covered in names of former gay sex clubs from the pre-AIDS bathhouse days: The Toilet, Basic Plumbing, The Hungry Hole Saloon, Mineshaft, and Blow Buddies.
The message is blatant and very funny: a legion of the Castro’s best and brightest have traded hot, anonymous sex for vanilla monogamy.
“Waters said the last time he went to the Castro, all the men were walking around with prams and babies. But he said the gay bars are all still there, so he just combined them into a pram,” Burnett says.
His lament is even more pointed as one travels through the exhibition.
In “Separate But Equal,” Waters takes the unfortunately recognizable image of an African-American woman in the segregated South drinking from a water fountain while a much nicer one reserved for whites is next to her.
However, he changes the signs above the fountains to be “Gay Married” over the white one and “Gay Single” over the black one.
Burnett tells me that Waters “is always looking for the most hated minority in America right now, which is always changing. One group that has occupied that role recently are gay men who stay single rather than get married.” (But is that stigma really the equivalent of the racism enshrined by segregated water fountains? Waters clearly knows how to still court controversy.)
Waters’s work exudes a nostalgia for a gay subculture that has all but vanished with mainstream America’s increasing acceptance of LGBT equality.
“Poultry” is a collection of several gay porn book covers involving “chickens”—young, lithe gay men. Reading through the titles with Burnett, I chuckled at the cheesiness of some of the titles, like Chicken Lickin’.
Other titles seem darker. Horney Chicken Nephew shows a young man presumably with his uncle, and Training a Chicken shows a blond young man, his mouth open, head held, as he is almost forced to the crotch of devious-looking older man.
“Poultry” is adjacent to “Separate But Equal” in the gallery, as if Waters wants to force the viewers to reconcile the raunchier, private side of gay America with the public focus on marriage equality and civil rights.
Not that Waters limits his love of the seedy to gay life, nor his passion for pulp porn.
Another series of prints show classic American novels juxtaposed next to their more adult parody versions. Grapes of Wrath is besides Rapes of Wrath. A Patch of Blue next to A Bit of Brown. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang becomes, impressively, Clitty Clitty Bang Bang.
Through “Beverly Hills John” it is clear that, as with his movies, Waters relishes in making us laugh and squirm.
“Probe” is a series of six black-and-white prints. Three are of the very expressive faces of each of the Three Stooges with highly graphic shots of anal probes interspersed.
Waters enjoys defiling his own image above all others, to make himself as despicable or grotesque as possible.
The exhibition's namesake piece, “Beverly Hills John,” is a self-portrait of Waters after a highly photo-shopped, distorted, tabloid-esque treatment. His trademark mustache is the only recognizable part in the image of his inflated lips, uber-tweezed eyebrows, and tightly raised and chiseled cheekbones.
His “Self Portrait #5” features Waters in a drab tan, dog catcher’s uniform holding a caged pooch in one hand and a frightening trapping device in the other. He has a deliciously sinister grin on his face and he is almost pouncing out at the viewer.
“Waters wanted to imagine himself as the most despicable man in the world,” Burnett tells me.
While certainly perverse, it’s the perversity Waters’s admirers love about him and his work. Burnett points out that Waters has long revelled in being the disliked outsider, although the public now views him with more affection than shock. Perhaps this show is supposed to rouse them from that—to show his sharp edges still.
“He’s very generous, gentle, and modest, but I think he has this image and enjoys this freedom of portraying himself as a hateful person, in a playful way,” Burnett tells me. “Pink Flamingos was banned in some parts of the world when it was released and he was vilified. He revels in that, in that perversity as an artist. He likes that status. I suppose he could have moved to San Francisco or Greenwich Village to find a milieu that accepted him as just part of the landscape, but he stayed in Baltimore [his hometown].”
But that doesn’t mean Waters doesn’t display genuine affection in this wonderful show.
The exhibition features a marble gravestone for French author Jean Genet, whose sexually graphic writing had inspired Waters since his teenage years.
Genet’s actual gravestone was stolen and never found, so the remarkably modest, smooth stone is Waters way of replacing it. In its simplicity, it has a feeling earnestness.
Waters also created an urn for artist Mike Kelley, who committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 57. While Kelley’s ashes aren't in it, Waters created the urn with the Kelley family’s permission and adorned it with an image of Kelley’s beloved cat.
When Waters gave a speech in Kelley’s honor in 2007, he said “Isn’t someone who can make you see something supposedly shameful in a beautiful, hilarious, radical, subversive way really a miracle worker?”
Of course that very same thing can—and should—be said about John Waters.