John Waters on Creating "A New Kind of Perversity"

“I think that celebrity is the only obscenity left in the art world” notorious director and counter culture icon John Waters tells us as he shows me around the gallery hosting his third solo exhibition, Beverly Hills John. The collection is just as audacious, crude, and outright hilarious as the films that made Waters into the cult iconoclast he has become today, but it is also an overtly personal look into Waters’ psyche. It is an amalgamation of his sardonic humor, his categorical knowledge of pop culture, his sexuality and queer identity, and self-aware allusions to his own place in the cultural and artistic landscape he has contributed to and shaped in his nearly five decades as a working artist. And it is of course ‘trashy,’ the ultimate Waters aesthetic, one that he has strived to maintain throughout his career.

And what a career it has been. He rose to prominence in the 1970’s with his ‘trash cinema’ features, exemplified by his landmark 1972 film Pink Flamingos and its’ companion piece, 1974’s Female Trouble. Both became infamous not just for the grotesque displays of obscenity unlike anything previously captured on film, but for their role as star vehicles for Waters’ muse Divine, the morbidly obese transvestite who has become just as much of a cult figure in her own right. Their partnership lasted for nearly two decades, producing more cult wonders like 1981’s Polyester and mainstream success with 1988’s Hairspray, the latter of which becoming a smash Broadway musical in recent years. Aside from a cameo in the 2007 film of the musical version of Hairspray, Waters has remained noticeably absent from the world of cinema, instead setting his sights on the worlds of art and literature.

But fear not, for Waters has lost none of his obsession for filth by switching mediums. In his own words, this new show is about “writing and editing. All these pieces are edited. I take images I see from movies and TV and mess with it as a form of reinvention.” This theme might be most self-evident in ‘Kiddie Flamingos,’ wherein Waters quite literally reimagines his former Pink Flamingos with a cast of children. We had previously reported on this particular piece, but seeing a filmed table read of the all child cast reading a version of the story Waters personally rewrote to be G-rated was a spectacle that demanded to be seen in person. This attitude to the artwork is inevitably the same subject matter and execution that Waters brings to each one of the films he directs; a way to examine societal mores and challenge their validity and worth through a re-inventive process. “I’m hoping for a new kind of perversity,” he said with a wry grin, “It’s so innocent and G-rated that the audience becomes the dirty one when they watch it.”

And after looking at the exhibit, the audience does indeed come out a bit dirtier than they were upon entering. One prominent piece was a collection of gay pornography book covers titled ‘Poultry’, as each cover contained the word ‘chicken’ in their title. It was an allusion to a part of gay culture that even befuddled this decidedly queer author. “I believe the word ‘chicken’ is no longer used, and I don’t like that. Now people learn the word ‘twink,’ and I don’t think it implies the same thing. I’m trying to bring back a word that is long-forgotten, but it really needs to come back” Waters clarified.

‘Poultry’ is but one of the many pieces that comment on contemporary queer culture in a style that is both hilariously lewd and intellectually challenging. Take for instance a baby stroller adorned with a genitalia pattern and a leather studded seatbelt. “When I was young you’d go to sex bars for your gay fix,” says Waters, “But now in the neighborhoods where you’d find gay bars you’ll now see dads with strollers. And I wanted to bring both worlds together; maybe you can still go to sex bars and have a child.” A particularly intriguing piece of the exhibit was a retouched version of the iconic Civil Rights era photograph of a water fountain divided between ‘white’ and ‘colored,’ adjusted to say ‘gay married’ and ‘gay single.’ To Waters, this was not so much a comment on the civil rights struggles ongoing for the queer community, but a look inside “what might be the new minority within the gay community, the gays that don’t want to start a family.”

Yet for all of its’ weighty discourse on queer culture, the exhibit is just as much centered around Waters’ love and musings on pop culture. An enlarged ruler emblazoned with “Fellini’s 8½” sits atop a wall, and the visage of the Grim Reaper haunts the Kennedy family in another doctored photograph, a reference to the world cinema iconography of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman as well as memories of his past. “I used to go with Divine to see Bergman movies on LSD,” Waters divulged mid laughter, “we were probably the only people in the world who tripped to Bergman.”

When we asked him for his thoughts on the climate of celebrity culture today, Waters told us “the only difference is snark. Too much time is spent snarking about the same old things, but what I want to know is things that we aren’t gossiping about: who is Joan Didion dating? Where are her leaked swimsuit pics?” For an analytic answer to these kinds of questions, look no further than ‘Beverly Hills John,’ a show that’s just as likely to call out the homogenization of gay culture as it is to question the lack of pubic hair in our sexual tastes.

‘Beverly Hills John’ is on display now at the Marianne Boesky Gallery until February 14th

Images of artwork courtesy of the artist and the gallery. Portrait photograph by Paul Bui.

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