New York Director John Waters’s ascent from notorious creator of Pink Flamingos (1972) to toast of Broadway is as instructive a lesson in the meshing of high and low American culture as is his film Pecker (1998), a cautionary fable—set in the art world—of redemption. His connoisseurship of vulgar Americana is rooted in Baltimore, his beloved hometown, which he depicts in that film as a vibrant, pansexual utopia.
Waters is a parodist. His first great subject was the average American family, and his second great subject is the art made in the period of his gallery debut. In 1995, being an artist looked mighty easy, especially from the perspective of the relaxed esthetic at the Colin de Land stable, which, when Waters joined it, included Cady Noland, Daniel Faust and Jessica Diamond. While the physical scale of Waters’s work has expanded since then, along with the art scene, little else has changed in his sensibility. “Rear Projection,” at Marianne Boesky, was a densely installed exhibition of photo-assemblages, text/image pieces and sculpture (all 2008 or ’09). Its many quotations include Allan McCollum’s enlargements of the background “art” in films and John Baldessari’s groupings from the mid-1970s of color images grabbed off video. Waters’s sequences of modestly scaled images, all culled from Hollywood films, bespeak the amateurism of the obsessed fan, an obsession that intersects with the less benign fixations of Larry Clark, Waters’s dark twin. Pieces like Santa Molester (a Santa stalking an anxious child), Look Out (tumbling car-crash victims) and Children Who Smoke (child actors puffing away) best reflect a camp sensibility happily mired in adolescence.
Occasionally, Waters drifts into welcome adult territory. With John Jr., he adds his signature pencil-thin mustache to a photograph of a pastel portrait of him as boy, commissioned locally by his parents. The single line across his delicate features transforms the youth of the mid-1950s to the John Waters action figure of the present, a defacement that echoes the gender-bending mustache and goatee of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. In Waters’s carefully executed mixed-medium sculpture Control, a spiffily dressed and coifed ’60s-era black man manipulates a marionette of a curvaceous black woman wearing a fur coat. It played nicely against the background of strolling collectors making discreet inquiries at the desk about prices—a scene that could be lifted directly from Pecker.
Waters looks at the archive of our cinematic unconscious through a warped lens of post-beatnik “sick” humor which, even when it wears thin—as it sometimes does at Boesky—remains authentic, if not visionary. I’m happy that it was Waters’s Hairspray that made it to the musical stage rather than Larry Clark’s Kids.
Photo above: John Waters: Control, 2009, mixed mediums, approx. 48 by 30 by 30 inches; at Marianne Boesky.