/ John Waters. Beverly Hills John, 2012. C-Print. 76,2 x 50,8 cm /
[Note: this article originally appeared on the Beige website beginning of July 2015]
Cinema’s trash maestro John Waters may not have directed a film since 2004, but if anything “the peoples’ pervert” is more venerated than ever. When A Dirty Shame (his last film to date) tanked, the durable Waters simply diversified, successfully re-inventing himself as an author, comedian, all-round pop culture “filth elder” (think gleefully corrupting sleazy uncle) – and visual artist.
Waters wrote about his passion for collecting modern art in his 2010 book Role Models. He’s also branched out into producing conceptual art himself. And in the kinky outsider art event of summer 2015, The Sprüth Magers gallery in Mayfair is presenting “Beverly Hills John” Waters’ first-ever exhibition in London (1 July – 15 August 2015).
The opening reception (or vernissage, if you prefer) was 30 June. As a lifelong Waters fanatic, needless to say my ass was there. To paraphrase a line from Serial Mom – I was so excited I could shit!
According to the press release, the exhibit promised “a fresh set of affectionate barbs about the movie biz. While he hasn’t lost his mordant wit or sense of mischief, “Beverly Hills John” finds Waters in a more reflective mood, asking the question: ‘Since celebrity is the only obscenity left in the art world, where do I fit in?’ He also hopes to resolve issues about childhood fame, false glamour, the horrors of nouveau-riche excess, his ongoing sexual attractions and the possible risk of ‘careericide’ with dignity.”
Inside Sprüth Magers, it was the hottest night of the summer thus far in more ways than one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a sneak preview of an art exhibit by cult cinema’s Pope of Trash lured every sexually ambivalent freak, punk and club kid in London. The gallery was packed and steamy. Adding to the buzz, Waters himself was holding court in person. Impeccably soigné in a Comme des Garcons jacket (or was it Dries van Noten?), Waters confidently circulated through the crowd, frequently stopping to graciously pose for photos with fans.
“Beverley Hills John” is saturated in macabre, sensational and perverse Hollywood Bablyon-style tabloid culture. The main gallery incorporates a section called “She Shoulda Said NO!” with cautionary portraits of glamour jungle casualties like Whitney Houston, Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse and Princess Diana. Waters includes among them doomed Country & Western chanteuse Patsy Cline, which felt odd since – unlike Houston, Smith and Winehouse – she died in a plane crash rather than of drug and alcohol abuse. (Perhaps Cline “shoulda said NO!” instead of boarding that plane?).
Waters offers two self-portraits: one of himself as a grotesque toupeed and Botoxed plastic surgery victim and one as an evil, grimacing dog catcher. (Sticking with the canine theme, perhaps the most disturbing and lingering image from the exhibit is what a “surgically-enhanced” Lassie would look like after a face lift).
In perhaps a sideways look at the concept of “gay respectability”, “Bill’s Stroller” is a toddler’s stroller fashioned out of studded black leather bondage straps, the fabric silkscreened with the names of hardcore gay sex clubs (Mineshaft, The Toilet, Blow Buddies) and spurting dicks. Know any expectant parents? It would make a great baby shower gift.
/ John Waters. Bill’s Stroller, 2014. Umbrella lightweight stroller with silkscreened linen and spiked, leather belt. 99,1 x 35,6 x 66 cm /
Elsewhere, Waters’ twisted vision integrates the covers of pornographic vintage gay pulp novels (if any straight attendees were unfamiliar with the old-school gay expression “chicken”, they will be now), novelty chest wigs, crabs (as in: pubic lice) and anal fissures.
The exhibit concludes with the video installation Kiddie Flamingos, in which Waters directs a cast of children as they re-enact the script of Pink Flamingos. It’s disarmingly sweet to see the “filthiest people alive” re-interpreted by kids – especially the little girl channelling Edith Massey as the egg-obsessed “Mama Edie” with blacked-out teeth and a beehive wig. It must be said, the girl portraying Connie Marble in a flame-orange wig and cat’s eye glasses really nails the venom of Mink Stole’s performance.
The rancid preoccupations and sensibilities that aficionados treasure in Waters’ films like Female Trouble and Cry-baby are present in abundance in the exhibit. “Beverley Hills John” is a life-affirming jolt of vivid kitsch.
/ John Waters. Justin’s Had Work, 2014. C-Print. 76,2 x 50,8 cm /
Further reading: I've blogged about John Waters - one of my key and most treasured inspirations - many times over the years. Read 'em all! My epic 2010 interview with Waters for Nude magazine. When John Waters Met Nico. A Reunion with the Prince of Puke Part 1 (2011). John Waters' Christmas Show at The Royal Festival Hall in 2011. The Amy Grimehouse John Waters Filth Festival in 2014. Reunion with the Prince of Puke Part 2 (2014). Reflections on John Waters' book Role Models. The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddamn One of Them) at The BFI.