John Waters: Neurotic at McClain Gallery

When I hear that a celebrity is doing art on the side, I assume it’s terrible. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s pretty rare for a person to be good at one kind of art; what are the chances that someone would also be good at some other kind of art as well? How many great composers are also good novelists? Being good at two different art forms is rare as hen’s teeth. Second is that a celebrity—a famous actor, filmmaker, whatever—is surrounded by a bunch of sycophants known as an entourage. If you go to a halfway decent art school, your work is going to be run through a grinder on a regular basis in critiques. But if you’re a movie star, who among the people around you are going to tell you that your art blows? No one. It’s their job to kiss your ass.

All this is preface to Neurotic, the new exhibit by filmmaker John Waters at McClain Gallery in Houston. I know Waters is a clever guy, and he knows a lot about contemporary art. Nonetheless, he’s a filmmaker who has been making movies since the late 1960s and only made his first piece of visual art in 1992. There’s something that feels a bit carpet-bagger-like about John Water’s art career. He’s someone who knows current trends in art and, more important, knows the art world. So I almost wrote him off before I even saw his work. Not quite, though. But I set a high bar. Waters had to deliver the goods or I’d destroy him. I was looking for any hint of phoniness or art that looked as if Waters was merely skating on his reputation as a filmmaker.

John Waters: Neurotic at McClain Gallery. Installation view.

Most of the work is photographic. Waters likes taking a stream of images which have been photographed off a television screen and presenting them as a series. The effect is a little like a comic strip. But he sees them as “little movies” [No. 1: First Works by 362 Artists, Francesca Richer & Matthew Rosenweig, editors, 2006, Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. P. 393]. This approach makes sense for a filmmaker, but the thing is that these are not like movies at all. The sequence of images in these pieces never suggests a narrative. Of course, he could be equating these pieces to non-narrative film, but Waters has made a career of narrative film. Instead, the horizontal photographic works present a series of images that are thematically similar. For example, Movie Star Junkie shows a sequence of images of needles penetrating flesh. These images may be of filmed junkies, but they may equally be from medical dramas.

John Waters. “Movie Star Junkie” 1997. 8 C-Prints, 9 1/4 x 12 1/8 inches, edition of 8

Farrah likewise shows pictures of eight recognizable celebrities who have had Farrah Fawcett’s famous feathered hairdo crudely pasted onto their mugs.

John Waters. “Farrah” 2000. C-Prints of variable dimensions, 9 ½ x 22 inches, edition 1/5

Among the appealing features of these pieces is the crappiness of the images. Waters has never made slickness a virtue in his films, and he carries that low-budget esthetic to these photographic pieces. His artworks, like his films, celebrate both the scandalous and bad taste. Even though millions of young women wore Farrah Fawcett-style ‘dos in the late 70s, today it is pretty much universally agreed that it was a hairstyle holocaust on par with the mullet. And junkies are always worth a few exclamation points in the headlines. Indeed, for something to be a real scandal, it has to be something that scandal sheets would cover. Mortgage brokers giving mortgages for mansions to people with no income was a major scandal, but it’s far too boring to be a subject of Waters’ art. But a little celebrity action, however unlikely, and you end up with a piece like Headline #1.

John Waters. “Headline #1” 2006. C-print, 22.5 x 98 inches, edition of 5

The tawdriness of our obsessions amuses Waters no end. He implicates us, the sophisticated art viewer, in it. He’s saying, yes, I know you like Post-Minimalism and that you’re a feminist and you listen to classical music and free jazz. You dress fashionably. You’ve been to Marfa. But you still pay attention when a pop diva overdoses or a rugged action star is outed. In fact, Waters makes little distinction among your various obsessions. They are all part of the carnival of life among 21st century intellectuals. High and low are collapsed in his art, as they are in life.

John Waters. “Visit Marfa” 2003. Offset print, 30 x 22 inches, edition 40/100

The joke’s on you, art-lover. Waters carries this further with Faux Video Room. You see a black curtain from which you hear noises. To people like me, this says—that must be the room where they’re showing the videos.

John Waters. “Faux Video Room” 2006. iPod, speakers, painted wood, synthetic velour and chrome pole, 110 x 96 x 6 inches, edition 1/3 with 1 AP

But when you pull the curtain aside, you see this:

John Waters. “Faux Video Room” detail. 2006. iPod, speakers, painted wood, synthetic velour and chrome pole, 110 x 96 x 6 inches, edition 1/3 with 1 AP

I not only found this quite droll, but it was a bit of a relief. It meant I didn’t have to sit through a boring video. (Although the notion that John Waters would ever make a boring video is ridiculous, anyway.) Of course, this piece recalls one of the great Hollywood spectaculars—The Wizard of Oz. Looking behind the curtain reveals the fraud of the “wizard,” the manipulation of his subjects through clever trickery. Waters can clearly relate. He knows his audience and how to keep them happy. It probably won’t be very gratifying to those of us in the art world that it’s much easier to do this with us than it is to do with film fans. The art world is much more demographically homogenous than the world of movie goers. If one is clever—and John Waters is nothing if not clever—you can create artwork that satirizes the art world while simultaneously flattering it. Success in the film world is a more dicey proposition. His early no-budget films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974) became hits on the midnight movie circuit of the 70s. In the 80s, he directed a string of moderately successful movies like Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), Cry Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994). His films were so inexpensive to produce that they didn’t have to make a lot of money to be successful. And since many of them became cult favorites, they continued to have financial success long past their original theatrical releases. But his last movie to date, A Dirty Shame (2004), was a flop.

John Waters “Bad Director’s Chair” 2006. Canvas, wood, steel, paint with leather-bound script, 46 x 24 ½ x 22 inches, edition 1/5

So what do you do after you’ve made a flop and presumably no one wants to give you money to make another one? One thing you can do is throw yourself a pity party. That’s what he does amusingly with Bad Director’s Chair. It’s your standard director’s chair made of wood and canvas with words and slogans like “HACK” and “DGA REJECT” painted on it. This chair was created two years after the critical and box-office failure of A Dirty Shame, and even though Waters is a sarcastic wiseacre, Bad Director’s Chair may actually represent how he felt at the time. Maybe making this chair was actually therapeutic for him.

John Waters “Bad Director’s Chair” detail. 2006. Canvas, wood, steel, paint with leather-bound script, 46 x 24 ½ x 22 inches, edition 1/5

But the other thing you can do after your film flops is throw yourself into other projects. Of the 23 pieces in this exhibit, 14 were done since A Dirty Shame was released. And these 14 pieces generally represent work that doesn’t mimic film by showing sequential images as Waters did in the earlier works like Farrah. It may be that as time has passed, Waters has started to look at his art as art in itself, as opposed to being an extension of his film work. (He has also written the well-received memoir Role Models (2010) and toured with popular one-man spoken word performance, This Filthy World.)

While Waters is plugged into the art world, his artwork differs from most contemporary art in one crucial way: it’s funny. To really make it in the art world, he’d have to tone that aspect of the work way down. I just don’t think he can. Art allows him to make objects like the On Me Rag. How could he ever give that up?

John Waters. “On Me Rag” 2006. Wood, oil paint, cotton, silkscreen ink, 63 x 76 x 6 ½ inches, edition 2/5

John Waters: Neurotic is on view at McClain Gallery, Houston, TX until April 28, 2012.

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