John Waters, non-film artist, in an extraordinary catalog

On Books

February 29, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

Born in 1946, John Waters has lived much of his life in Baltimore, site of most of his films. He wrote and directed his first movie, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, in 1964 while he was still in high school. By the time he was 27, he had put out eight films, including Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974) and was a considerable camp celebrity -- dubbed by William Burroughs as "The Pope of Trash." He is still making films, productive for 40 years. The latest, A Dirty Shame, will be released this summer.

In the meantime, he has fashioned another, almost discordant, career as a still photographer and conceptual artist. He's made lots -- lots and lots -- of still photographs, many of them of movie or television screens. He has produced five books: Shock Value, Crackpot, Trash Trio, Director's Cut and Art: A Sex Book, which he wrote with Bruce Hainley.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City opened an exhibition of Water's non-film art on Feb. 7. It will close April 18, and any serious Waters addict -- thousands crowd Baltimore -- will want to get there. John Waters: Change of Life (Abrams, 144 pages, $37.50) is essentially a catalog for the show, but it stands on its own as a splendid review of this side of the artist.

It contains essays by Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum; Marvin Heiferman, a curator whose specialty is photography; Brenda Richardson, the distinguished contemporary art historian who for many years was chief curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art; Gary Indiana, novelist and short-story writer; and an interview of Waters by Todd Solondz, a director who has made five films.

The volume is more substantially interesting than many catalogs of museum shows -- though there are other gems of exceptions from time to time. Also, this book contains a rich offering -- more than a guided sampling -- of the objects in the show. The design and production are beyond praise; Abrams is matched by no publisher in its artfulness and artisanship in making this sort of book.

The New Museum, founded in 1977, has exhibited work from almost countless countries and artists, with valuable emphasis on the breaking edge. It has been at the forefront of exhibiting digital and experimental video art.

This catalogue and exhibition are full of special treasures from Waters' personal collection: a photo of Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in the Broadway production of Peter Pan, accompanied by a toy pirate hook that Waters keeps with it. Publicity shots of Bishop Sheen, Jayne Mansfield, Johnny Cash, early Liberace, looking boyish. There are 16 chromogenic prints, done by Waters in 1993, from the 1957 movie Peyton Place, and eight prints of Grace Kelly's elbows -- not one of her particularly celebrated bits of anatomy -- shot and cropped by Waters from the screen. There are covers of books and magazines that suggest the utter absurdity of author, publisher, reader -- or the entire society.

The most enthusiastic of Waters' photographs are moments that capture a particular unintended irony, excess, ridiculousness or simply gross bad taste.

Phillips' article, called "He Has Seen 'It'," contains what may be the best description I have seen that tries to make sense of Waters' work. She defines the world he has created as "a zany, anarchic, darkly humorous vision of America where nonconformity is taken to new extremes, hierarchies are overthrown, and tastelessness is embraced with abandon." Phillips points out that Waters subscribes to 118 magazines -- that's pop culture.

Heiferman contributed an essay that begins by celebrating the more-or-less autobiographical element in Water's 1998 movie, Pecker -- a very young Baltimore photographer whose remark about his camera's viewfinder provides the essay's title: "Everything Always Looks Good Through Here." In full, it's a thoughtful and provoking examination of Waters the still-picture artist, in contrast to the moviemaker, and Heiferman is successful, I believe, in establishing that these are two conceptually quite different men and talents.

There are, however, common values, as Heiferman writes, "Waters wants to amuse and shock us, and is unwavering in his desire to pierce the veneer of politeness that prohibits each of us from admitting who we really are. ... His brilliance as an artist is built, in part, on his willingness to imagine what gets unleashed and accomplished when repressive personal, social, and cultural strictures are shattered."

Indiana's "Waterworks" presents a provocative parallel of Waters and Andy Warhol, their work and their personal styles. His observations are generally clear and persuasive, but too often his language falls, flailing and writhing, into the dreaded academic morass of artspeak: "Waters intuited the postliberation tendency toward fascist uniformity that manifested itself with uneasy frivolity in the disco phenomenon and then became uglily concretized in the figure of the West Village clone."

Zowee!

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