In John Waters' new gallery show, "Versailles," the cult filmmaker demonstrates his uncanny knack for having it both ways. Over the past half-century, Baltimore's favorite bad boy has carefully constructed an image as a provocateur. But he somehow manages to needle gently, without giving too much offense.
"I travel in two completely different worlds," Waters says, "and I love them both. To me, there is no tension between the different realities. I find the contrast delightful."
For instance, the title image in his new show, which runs through Feb. 27 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, is split in half. The right side of the frame contains a photo of the famous 17th-century French palace with its cavorting stone statues, decorative balcony grillwork and gilded candle sconces. There is so much going on with that architecture that the castle practically prances.
The image's left side contains a snapshot of the Versailles apartments in Towson. The complex's walls are painted white and unadorned, while an entrance gate is topped with egg-shaped lanterns and two taupe something-or-others resembling a giant's thumbs.
Well, both buildings have mansard roofs.
"The first time I saw the Versailles in Towson, I was shocked and startled," Waters says. "I'm not saying that one's good and one's bad, or that one's beautiful and one's not, just that there are two different interpretations. I would think the people in Towson would get a chuckle out of the juxtaposition. I mean, their heating bill is a lot less."
But try as he might, Waters can't utterly squelch his inner elitist.
" 'Versailles' really is a sort of grandiose name for an apartment complex," he went on. "I'd have liked to be at the marketing meeting when they came up with it. I did call them up, and unfortunately they pronounced it correctly when they answered the phone. I was hoping they would say 'Ver-sales.' "
The 63-year-old Waters has spent his career taking snippets of life and arranging them amusingly inside frames, both as a creator of camp classic films ("Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble") and of hit Broadway musicals ("Hairspray" and "Cry-Baby").
So his later forays into the art world aren't as much of a stretch as they might seem. His current show, the first exhibit of Waters' artwork in his hometown since 2002, contains 25 images, each one odder than the one before.
There's "7734," in which the fancifully-rendered numerals spell out "hell" when turned upside down. "Ham" - a full-frontal photo of a stringy, overcooked hunk of pork - seems inspired by Waters' work with thespians.
Another image is based on a sign that hung outside an artists' supply store on St. Paul Street when Waters was a boy. The original, which was shaped like an artist's palette, contained a sentiment that perfectly expressed the values of the time: "Study art for fame or hobby."
Waters' updated version reads, "Study art for prestige or spite."
Taken as a whole, the exhibit reveals less about the city where Waters grew up than it does about his artistic preoccupations.
"Megan Hamilton of the Creative Alliance once said that my photographs are the only things I make that doesn't have anything to do with Baltimore," he says, "and she's a little bit right. My photographs are made here, but they're not about Baltimore itself."
Waters' first art show was in 1995, and his work is included in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, and New York's Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art.
Gallery owner Costas Grimaldis thinks that switching back and forth between films and artwork - between the creation of moving and still images - helps to recharge Waters' batteries.
"John composes all the shots in his films," Grimaldis says. "But his still photographs are appropriated images. They are not originally his. What John composes is the sequence. He rearranges the images, and makes his own little movie."
Though Waters took an occasional snapshot in the current show himself, such as the one of the Towson apartment complex, those images are the exception. The vast majority of photos are excerpted from existing films, including the one of the French palace.
Waters is on the record as saying that all movies are too long. Even in works of genius, he says, the most eye-catching scenes are surrounded by lots of boring, forgettable exposition. But the flip side of that notion is that even atrocious films have fleeting moments of cinematic perfection.
"I'm saying there's no such thing as a bad movie," he says.
"There's at least one frame that's great, but you have to find it. Look at the corners of the frame. Look at the furniture, the changeover marks [the momentary on-screen blobs that signal the projectionist that it's time to switch reels], the details you are not supposed to notice. Then you'll have art."
Waters first comes up with the overall concept. Then, his friends and assistants sift through old movies, searching for an array of frames that illustrate the theme. Waters selects the stills he wants to use, freezes the images on a giant television monitor in his Baltimore home and photographs them. He edits the finished project in his Hampden art studio and then frames it.
"The difference between the movie business and the art world," he says, "is that in the former, I have to pretend that everyone will like what I make. In the art world, if everybody likes something I create, it's a failure. Just one person has to like an artwork for it to be a success.
"I'm against art for the people. That's a terrible idea. The art world is like a secret biker gang. You have to learn how to dress, how to speak and how to see."
And with that remark, John Waters rushes to embrace his outrageous, perceptive and witty inner snob.