There’s nothing quite like having John Waters himself lead a tour of Indecent Exposure, the retrospective of his visual art that just opened at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts. You not only get to see close-up the works — 160 photographs, sculptures, sound works and moving images — but also get an often-hilarious running commentary from this accomplished multidisciplinary artist and master entertainer. The show originated at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Waters’ hometown.
But Waters has a tie to the Wexner Center, too. In 1999, they became home to Waters’ first solo exhibition.
Most famous for the movies he directed, such as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, his visual art often functions as laugh-inducing visual jokes on the state of the arts, especially filmmaking. And, yes, he’s not afraid to make a sexual reference here and there, sometimes combining it with cinephilia, as in the large wooden ruler that measures out “Fellini’s 8½.” He also has a perversely amusing, Hitchcockian fascination with death.
Waters, alas, isn’t slated to give any more personal tours of this show while it’s up at the Wexner through April 28. Luckily, I taped his media tour with my somewhat problematic cassette recorder (or maybe my operation of it was somewhat problematic). What follows are excerpts of that tour.
He starts with an explanation of his oeuvre: “Basically, I’m trying to be the failed publicist and celebrate everything that goes wrong in the art world and in movies, with humor,” he says. “I don’t think I’m mean; I love what I make fun of.”
His challenge in making contemporary art is to constantly ask himself, “Is it wrong to be funny?”
In the first of the three galleries devoted to his work, after stopping at three photographs that have been digitally altered to make their subjects — including Waters, himself — appear to have had some extreme, almost otherworldly, facial plastic surgery, he moves to a 2003 photograph called “Return to Sender.” It shows a collection of returned letters. “I sent letters to dead celebrities at their last address and put my return address on the back, and they came back to me,” he explains. “I didn’t touch anything; the postmen made me this art piece. They wrote ‘deceased’ (or) ‘dead.’”
He soon comes to what he calls two framed-together photos of the titles of obscure movies Dr. Dolittle 2 and A Knight’s Tale, entitled “9/11”
“This one I think is the scariest piece in the whole show, because those two movies nobody remembers. They were what was about to be shown on the planes on 9/11,” Waters says. “It was really hard for me to find that out — they never showed. It would have been worse if you crashed into the World Trade Center watching Dr. Dolittle 2. So I feel as if it’s an optimistic piece.”
At the second gallery, Waters explains his “Shooting Script,” aka a photo that reveals the blank cardboard backings of used-up legal pads. Here, his commentary adds poignancy to a somewhat quizzical piece. “This one is hopeful for a writer,” Waters says. “I write everything by hand — all my movies, all my ideas for shows — and this is what’s (left) after I’m done. What a success! I’ve used all these pads. This is an anti-writer’s block piece for writers.”
The Waters retrospective repeatedly features framed series of screenshot images from movies. Their purpose can be strange or illuminating, depending on one’s interest in the way Waters likes to subvert the original meaning of his source material. For instance, from the classic 1956 movie The Bad Seed, he has put together screenshots of what’s supposed to look like framed artwork in the background of interior scenes. Why? “It had nothing to do with the plot; I’m a real art thief in this,” Waters says. “One thing in the movies you’re not supposed to ever notice is how they fill the walls.”
Another example of this kind of work is a photo series devoted to actress Grace Kelly’s elbows. There is a clear ulterior motive here, a commentary on the sexist way that male filmgoers respond to actresses. “Men always say, ‘Nice tits’ about women. So I said, ‘Nice elbows on Grace Kelly.’ Nobody ever says that. And she does have nice elbows.”
Jean-Luc Godard once famously said that “Cinema is truth 24 times a second.” Waters has a corollary. “Every movie has something in it that you can take a picture of and make it into some kind of twisted art,” he says. “The worst movie is 24 frames per second. One of those is good. So there is no such thing as a bad movie.”
Moving on to the third and final gallery displaying his work, Waters stops at “Faux Video Room,” a piece made from a birch-painted plywood doorframe and a synthetic velour curtain on a chromed pole. If you pull back the curtain, you face not an entranceway to a screening room but a barrier.
“This is really for collectors who think they should have video art but they don’t have room in their house,” he says. “There is no room.” There is also, naturally, no video art. But there is sound — Waters says it’s related to the infamous Jim Jones, who led his religious cult to mass death in Guyana.
Waters points to a needlepoint pillow with the word “FLOP” on it. “Every executive that you pitch a movie to has a needlepoint pillow, but they never say ‘flop,’ which everyone has had,” he says. “So this celebrates something everyone has had but doesn’t talk about.”
Waters’ show does end with what he calls “the X-rated room” for its overtly sexual material. The humor in this room is evident. For example, “Devil’s Orders” is a photograph of an angry devil wall illustration, along with a crudely scrawled phrase “Blow me asshole.”
Waters explains how he got his revenge on this homophobic display. “This is my favorite,” Waters says. “I saw that in a heterosexual biker bar, took a picture, ran out, came back and sold it for $5,000.”