John Waters‘ role can’t be limited to just one descriptive word: director, actor, professor, screenwriter, artist, comedian, bad influence, etc. Nicknames such as the “pope of trash” have tried to sum up his public persona, but looking at his art might be a better way to attempt to understand him.
The exhibit Bad Director’s Chair is now on display at Sprüth Magers. Waters’ humor, crassness, rebelliousness, and style are all evident in his works — which is good because his audience might have been disappointed otherwise.
And there was an audience. At the opening on Thursday, gallery-goers diffused onto the sidewalk to escape from the crammed crowd inside of the gallery. The bar was wiped out, save for a couple of dark wine stains on the white tablecloth. There was a crowd-controlled line to enter the small exhibition room, and after the ten-minute wait, gallery staff were on guard to protect the installation pieces from an accidental bump or kick — especially Playdate, an infant Michael Jackson doll crawling towards a seated baby Charles Manson.
No one seemed to want to get that close to the creepy Jackson and Manson figures, though. Playdate, (2006) and the other sculpture Control (2014) are some of the more vulgar, uncomfortable pieces. Arranged on the wall in the style of a less-dense salon, sequences of film stills and photographs made up the majority, and the best, of the exhibit.
Most of these sequences, such as DWI (2003), quip by pointing out absurdities of Hollywood and celebrity status. In this strip, one-liners tell of drunk driving situations in films that one doesn’t necessarily associate with the taboo-ed crime: “Bette Davis in ‘The Star’ driving around drunk with her Oscar on the dashboard.” Even if our attitudes about driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol have changed, our obsession with celebrity has not. When googling this piece of artwork, Justin Bieber’s mugshot is one of the top image results.
Most of Waters’ more compelling photo and film arrangements don’t have text. Product Placement with its simple act of imposing products into famous movie scenes is successful in being both gaudy and smart. In Rear Projection, (2009) different images of films are quite simply projected onto bare asses, with the final frame reading “The End.”
Waters is funniest when he tempers crass jokes with smart humor. This paradox is what makes people come back for more, even after Waters has been creating art for years. Middle-aged women with shimmery jackets draped over their shoulders were just as present as young fans with Lego toy hairpieces. Waters takes the broad guilty pleasure of celebrity and sexual sensationalism, and amplifies and crops it in Bad Directors Chair. The result is a kind of tension: a sense of distance and sophistication in being ‘above’ the antics of certain celebrities, and a simultaneous recognition of celebrities that reminds us of the addiction we have, as a society, to gossip.
The strangest part of the exhibition was that John Waters himself was present in the small room during the opening, yet appeared almost as another work of art, clad in a dark suit littered with strips of red plaid and his signature pencil moustache. Only a few approached the artist, no pictures were taken, no fans freaked out. Maybe fewer people recognized Waters than they did the Michael Jackson baby.
The exhibit opened the same night as the Berlinale Film Festival, polished with red carpets, screaming fans, and George Clooney.
John Waters at Berlinale 2014: