A decade ago, legendary cult filmmaker John Waters made a valiant attempt to finance a children’s film called Fruitcake. No one bit, but the impulse resurfaced in his latest solo exhibition, “Beverly Hills John.” The show’s centerpiece was Kiddie Flamingos (2014), a 74-minute video of a staged reading from Waters’s script for his 1972 film Pink Flamingos, with children in the roles once “popularized” by Divine, Mink Stole and Cookie Mueller. “If only they knew what they were doing,” one distinguished-looking gallerygoer muttered to his arm candy as he emerged from the curtained room where the video played. The joy of the work is that they do! Of varying performance (and reading) proficiencies and ages, these children revel in the perverse absurdity once writ for an X-rated format. That original midnight movie, which resulted in countless bans and obscenity lawsuits, follows Babs Johnson, “the filthiest person alive,” as she defends her title against would-be usurpers Connie and Raymond Marble. Sex incorporating live chickens has been replaced with baby-doll trafficking, but details don’t trouble the libidinal exorcisms that have always been the raison d’être of Waters’s worlds. These kiddies all squeal with naked (albeit G-rated) glee when a quite talented ingenue, portraying Connie Marble, gets to spew an excitable “gosh darnit.” And, yes, surrogate Divine’s dog-food grin is just as lurid as the original’s dog-shit smile.
The kid quotient brought a surprisingly nuanced subtext to many of the images and objects assembled for the exhibition. One triptych depicts Waters, Justin Bieber and Lassie all Photoshopped into plastic surgery obscurity, like photorealist reflections of a dementedly childlike understanding of celebrity. In Self Portrait #5 (2014), Waters envisions himself as the maniacal dog catcher from children’s films of yesteryear. The press release intones that this image finds the artist “nostalgically yearning for the days he was hated by the ‘moral’ guardians.” It’s a telling image in the context of the exhibition, which marks the latest step of a public transition that Waters has been working at for years. In the last decade, he’s mounted more than 25 solo exhibitions around the world, published books and essays, released a Christmas album and toured both the comedy and school-lecture circuits. All of these activities have been aimed at honing a more mainstream pop persona that one could sense emerging from his essay collection Crackpot (1987) and his film Serial Mom (1995).
The changes in Waters’s creative life, of course, reflect a radically shifted gay cultural climate. One photograph, Separate But Equal (2014), digitally alters a black-and-white artifact of segregationist history for a different brand of discrimination, creating a water fountain for gay singles and one for those more fortunately betrothed. The sculpture Bill’s Stroller (2014) is a baby stroller printed with raunchy logos of defunct gay sex clubs, and equipped with a leather harness to hold baby in place. This “family friendly” vision of Waters creates a kind of tasteful self-censorship that leaves more to the double entendre than his former show-and-tells. Sometimes this achieves an incredulous pitch between obscene and innocent. At other times, his postmodern rehashing comes off as stale. Since the late 1990s, Waters has been photographing television screens, reimagining other directors’ films and curating exhibitions of suggestive potboiler book covers. Richard Prince and Mike Kelley are explicitly referenced in “Beverly Hills John,” but Waters seems to be at his best when he’s humorously introspective, a curious art-world Benjamin Button, whose new “acceptable” kiddie movie may well be his most perverse—and nuanced—film to date.
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.