Film Comment

At the Movies With John Waters

My nominations, in order, for Living National Movie Treasure (Male) are John Waters, Kenneth Anger, and Russ Meyer. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film entry on Waters, David Thomson describes him as "the classic modern homosexual movie director with wit, courage, and mischief." (Of course no one would call Steven Spielberg, say, the "classic American heterosexual movie director.") Anyway, Thomson, who says Waters is "dangerous, dirty, naughty, and middle-aged," adds that he "makes mock of everything his mom cherished—while secretly yearning to be Mom."

I've always relished that Waters is one of those celebrities you see walking around New York. Spotting that pencil-thin mustache, those beady eyes, and that gentleman-meets-dandy-meets-decadent-lecher look always thrills me. Closer to home, I felt the same way about Colin de Land, the beautiful, bohemian prince who—until his death on March 2—owned, operated, and was the charismatic guru of American Fine Arts, the rough-and-tumble but chic gallery/test site (now in its fourth location) where Waters is showing his small-scale photo collages.

Waters's moviemaking attention has wandered since the death, in 1989, of his larger-than-life transvestite muse, Divine, who graced his early masterpieces Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Hairspray. For some time now, Waters has seemed to yearn to be an artist of the art-world kind. He's always collected art, and since 1992 he's also made and exhibited it. By now he's had 22 solo shows around the world. In the five one-man shows he's had at American Fine Arts, Waters has shown gang-like groupings of grainy pictures shot from his TV screen. Hero worship and my love of his early films aside, most of these works have been nicely sleazy, funny, and punny, but always fairly derivative, especially of Richard Prince. True, you could make out the patented Waters sensibility—the obsession with porn, poop, lowlife, stars, and marginalia. Yet his art has never seemed entirely his own, which made Waters subject to the one accusation that mavericks fear most—that his work is conventional.

Impish, cunning, charming, and cheesy: the Waters installation at American Fine Arts with Flop (2003) up front
photo: Robin Holland
Impish, cunning, charming, and cheesy: the Waters installation at American Fine Arts with Flop (2003) up front

Details

John Waters
American Fine Arts
530 West 22nd Street
Through March 22

Despite continued connections to conceptualists like Prince, John Baldessari, and Ray Johnson, and institutional-critique types like Louise Lawler and Dara Birnbaum, "Hair in the Gate," as this exhibition is called, is a step toward a more personal aesthetic. Waters seems more comfortable in his artistic skin, more the crafty writer, director, and editor he is, less a quick study. His work is beginning to feel more like his films: impish, cunning, charming, and cheesy.

Take the green-and-brown needlepoint pillow with a word that must have a special meaning for a middle-aged director (or any artist whose work has been slighted): Flop. Or the titular Hair in the Gate, named after a movie expression that apparently means check to see if everything on the set is ready to shoot. Here, Waters inserts a dreaded and very visible hair into frames of films like Titanic, The Sound of Music, and Spartacus. The montage technique is familiar, and the sensibility somewhat childish, but the fiendishness and anarchy are very Waters. In Five Great Movies Badly Photographed, Waters frames blurry shots of the titles from Psycho, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and others. It's flat-footed but subtly subversive. Throughout, Waters plays the role of the morbidly interested fan. In Return to Sender, we see envelopes he addressed and sent to deceased or infamous figures—the Reverend Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and JFK Jr., on the last of which a postman has dolefully written "Deceased" and "Die."

Waters merges his knowledge of showbiz with fandom and crosses it with standard conceptualist strategies. Sometimes he just signals that Brad Pitt and Charles Manson resemble one another, or suggests how good-looking a serial killer can be. Because many of these pieces make you laugh and treat you like an insider, you can almost forgive silly works like Epic, where he hangs the title frame of The Poseidon Adventure upside down, the punning Swish Pan, the infantile 7734 (mounted on a device that flips the numbers to read HELL), or even the dumb-but-lovable blank blue screen titled simply Writer's Block. With some of these works you almost expect to hear rim shots from a drummer.

The most personal works in the show are seven framed pieces displaying between 16 and 308 little index cards, or photocopies of them. Each card is a to-do list. Evidently, Waters leads a busy life. But he's also efficient to the point of obsessiveness. Not only are there zillions of items on these lists, but every one of them is crossed out. In this tour de force of anal-retentiveness we see the driven, deeply squirrelly side of Waters.

Continuing in this vein, Waters defaces eight of his own publicity photos in Self Portrait #3. If it were by anyone else this would be an empty gesture. From him it's a hoot. Even better are four rainbow-colored travel posters with blurbs that say "Take the Whole Family to Marfa, Texas," "See Donald Judd's Bed," and "See the Jonestown of Minimalism." You can almost hear Divine, de Land, and maybe even Judd, cackling.

 
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