Waters plays with images in serious ways

November 12, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Director John Waters is a Baltimore icon for his zany, anti-establishment feature films set in this city, but he is less well-known here as a photographer, possibly because he has never exhibited his still camera work in his hometown.

So Straight to Video, an exhibit of Waters' photographs at C. Grimaldis Gallery (actually, they're photographs of video images of movies) is sort of a groundbreaking event. Waters has shown this work in New York and elsewhere but for some reason has waited until now to debut them in his native city.

As a still photographer, Waters is an unapologetic appropriationist, snatching telling images from the flickering tube and altering their original meaning by setting them in new and unexpected contexts.

Most of the pieces in the show are sequences of photographs that have been matted and framed together as single works. Some of the images are borrowed from Waters' own movies, others are lifted from classic Hollywood fare.

In Hot Seat, for example, Waters strings together 11 color prints to re-create the conventionalized story line of a Hollywood-style execution, from the obligatory shots of the condemned man strapped to the electric chair and a stone-faced executioner with his hand on the switch to the plaintive cutaways showing a telephone that never rings with news of a reprieve.

Waters plays these cinematic cliches for all they're worth, intercutting stills from Hollywood crime movies with a shot from his own film Female Trouble and even a cartoon panel from The Simpsons.

Yet the result is unexpectedly powerful, because for all the work's visual tomfoolery it ends up making the uncomfortable point that an electrocution, despite its ritual solemnity, is an act of barbaric madness in which we are all complicit, even if only as voyeurs. It also makes you wonder why such savagery has become a happy staple of our "entertainment" culture.

No exhibition of Waters' artwork would be complete without its share of the trashy, the frivolous, the fetishistic and the downright perverse, and this show offers viewers some fabulous examples of the film director's legendary bad taste.

"Puke in the Cinema" presents 10 color images of actors throwing up onscreen, which is supposed to be some sort of ultimate test of thespian commitment to a role (alas, the piece was done in 1998, well before actress Drea de Matteo brought such artistry to the small screen as mob moll Adriana La Cerva in last season's The Sopranos).

And Waters' obsession with screen diva Elizabeth Taylor is on full display in Face Lift, which recapitulates the aging actress' undying devotion to plastic surgery, and the aptly titled Liz Taylor's Hair and Feet, 26 images of the coiffeur and heels that launched a thousand tabloid cover stories.

Admittedly, most of the fun of this show lies in trying to guess which movies Waters was watching when he snapped these pictures, a task of no mean difficulty since it's obvious the director has seen just about everything.

It's also intriguing to watch how he appropriates the utilitarian purposes of the movie storyboard - the sequence of pictures directors use to plan the order of their shots - into a minor art form in its own right.

But because this is John Waters, the self-avowed "King of Trash," don't expect any heavy existential angst or profound revelations about the meaning of life. Everything here mostly just skims the surface, as frothy, light and pungently scented as - dare we say it? - a sweet cloud of hairspray.

Photo exhibit

What: Straight to Video, exhibit of works by John Waters

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 1

Call: 410-539-1080.

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