Shocking, Awful Delights

John Waters’ irreverent, essential needling

Dubbed the “Pope of Trash” by William Burroughs, director John Waters is a rare personality whose body of work includes the cult classic films “Hairspray,” “Female Trouble,” and “Pink Flamingos.” His films are about people who would never win in real life, yet they always win in his movies.

His outspoken irreverence can be both appalling and gut wrenchingly funny at the same time. From fucking with chickens and Divine eating dog poo to serial killer housewives, he often leaves audiences talking long after the credits roll. He once declared that Larry Kramer is the Bill Cosby of the gay community. He seems to relish telling twisted tales that make fun of things while elevating them in a new light.

“If you can’t change something, you make fun of it,” he’s said, “and you learn to live with it and accept it. That’s maturity. If you can make fun of your worst night, you will survive everybody.”

He seems to relish art that inspires contempt in people who generally hate contemporary art in the first place. And his latest exhibition titled “Unwatchable” is no exception. The gallery includes photographic storyboards extracted from B-movie film stills superimposed with text that reinterpret the meaning of the images. One particular piece includes several survey forms that solicit commentary about various contemporary art exhibitions. The handwritten responses are enough to keep me coming back for more laughs.

There are also some wonderful sculptural installations including “Playdate” in which Michael Jackson and Charles Manson as babies, crawl toward each other. Waters poses the question “Would these two men who went down such dubious paths in their lives have turned out differently if they had a play date as children?” There is an unnerving sound installation playing in the background of children exchanging money in a Baltimore bookstore for a newly released Harry Potter book.

Hanging on one wall is a giant terrycloth towel with the phrase “On me, not in me” printed on the fabric—perhaps a bittersweet reference to the all too common practice of barebacking among gay men.

These works may seem like one-liners, and they certainly are successful in that vein, yet they also manage to turn losers into winners and undermine the power of images, and in this respect his artwork has something more to offer than simply a good laugh. It resonates by questioning beliefs, assumptions, and the cultural comfort zone and perhaps holds company with art by Richard Prince or Cary “Candyass” Liebowitz in that the work of all three manages to unnerve and resonate with some emotional turmoil. In the end Waters work reduces images and moments to a sensual delight and horror, which are as desirable and memorable as the films he is famous for.

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