Art / Camp / Filthy Dreams On Location / Trash

The John Waters Collection Doesn’t Hate You, but Contemporary Art Still Might

Daniel McDonald, Erik, Piss-Crazed Maniac, 2007, Graphite on paperboard and stained glass (Photo by author)

Someone was taking a dump in The John Waters Restrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Was it an art-inspired intestinal emergency or a dedicated tribute to the filmmaker whose major public stink involved Divine sampling some doggy-doo in the filthy finale of Pink Flamingos? Or perhaps, this intrepid museum-goer previously devoured John’s chapter “Act Bad” from Mr. Know-It-All and committed one of the greatest acts of turd terrorism: the upper decker?

No matter its intention, the fecal fragrance greeted me as soon as I entered the restrooms for my own personal pee pilgrimage. I don’t know why I was surprised. John’s all-gender restrooms on the first floor of the BMA, emblazoned with his name in proper recognition of his respected status as a museum trustee, should be the hangout for deviants to commit all sorts of sordid acts in order to properly worship our Pope of Trash. Shit, actually, is quite tame in comparison to the unimaginable range of perverse possibilities. I was frankly disappointed I didn’t come face-to-face with the wild-eyed lunatic gleam of Erik whose lewdly leering look stared out of urine-colored stained glass in Daniel McDonald’s Erik, Pissed-Crazed Maniac, on view nearby in an exhibition of John’s art collection. If only the offending stench wafted into the galleries, Erik was just begging for a sniff. Frankly, the curators should have hung this piece in the bathroom–for Erik’s sake.

Genuflecting to the toilet (photo by moi)

Beyond some likely sensical art conservationist’s practical reasons why this artwork wasn’t placed above a toilet, the demented glare from a piss-crazed maniac truly did belong within an exhibition displaying a selection of John Waters’s lifelong aesthetic shopping spree. Curated by artists and fellow Waters collection inhabitants Catherine Opie and Jack Pierson, who, like most artist-curators, place their own work within the show, Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection is not only titled in reference to John’s cinematic fetishism and a subtle nod to jerking off in front of art (As John admits in a booklet corresponding to the exhibition: “I’ve never jerked off to any artwork.” Sure…). Coming Attractions also poses this small exhibition as a preview of sorts: 90-something artworks culled from the around 375 in John’s collection that will be donated in full to the Baltimore Museum of Art upon his death.

I’ve always had a thing for coming attractions—those overwrought theatrical trailers that ruin the best parts of films before you see them. Why wait to see John’s collection when you can salivate over the sizzle reel now? Naturally, I had to make the trek south to Baltimore, walking on my knees from the Amtrak station. Not only did I visit Coming Attractions, but I also groveled at the feet of Charm City’s lurid legend in as many ways as possible by greeting the Andrew Logan spinning sculpture of Divine at the American Visionary Art Museum, trying to commit a federal crime by stealing John’s mail at Atomic Books, creepy-crawling by John’s actual house (I’ll never tell) while considering if breaking and entering is worth the jail time, and gawking at the kitsch hallucination of the Papermoon Diner (sadly, I missed a night out at Club Charles, John’s rumored Friday night hang). The culmination of my religious devotion, however, was speaking in tongues at Divine’s gravesite. Notably, next to Divine’s cigarette, makeup brush, tacky pink flamingo, and curled green turd-strewn final resting place were two empty plots set aside for both John and hysteric hero Mink Stole. Morbidly, with the context of Coming Attractions, it’s impossible not to think that one of these plots will have to be filled in order to see the rest of John’s collection (Long may he live!).

Holy ground (photo by me)

As my entire career has been one long fanatical overture to John, I couldn’t wait to discover what secrets Coming Attractions held. John has never been coy about how important his art collection means to him, calling these works his “roommates” and dedicating an entire chapter to these live-in companions in his memoir-through-idols, Role Models. We all know that a person’s library says everything we need to know about them and their perspective on the world, so why would an art collection be any different? Would I learn something new about John through his stockpile of art? Would there be any surprise inclusions that would change my entire perception of my preeminent filth elder? Would there be curious details that illuminate his entire being? Would there be an art version of the well-corn copy of Joan Crawford’s memoir My Way of Life I found in Nick Cave’s library in the exhibition Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition?

Not exactly.

A friend once told me that I had the most immediately recognizable (lack of) taste of anyone he ever met. Maybe. But I’d argue the man who has a stronger one—and perhaps where I got my own uncompromising outlook—is John. One aspect of John’s career that has always fascinated me is the way he has perfectly tailored his vision—not only in his films but as a public persona. For instance, the collection John Waters: Interviews lays bare how John repeats and retells the same quips, bits, stories, and asides, improving and sharpening them with time until being interviewed is akin to a vaudevillian act (as are his one-man shows). Somehow his art collection builds on a similar impulse. Every part of Coming Attractions is pure unadulterated John Waters.

Installation view of “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection” (Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art)

Take the show’s entryway lined with smaller works hung salon-style. The BMA is a bit of a winding maze for a newbie to navigate yet it was impossible to miss the entrance of Coming Attractions upon glimpsing the plastered-on doomed smile of baby pageant queen and notorious murder victim JonBenét Ramsey. Here, Ramsey is represented by Eric Luken in a grid of four Warholian silkscreens rendered in a similar color scheme to Warhol’s own Jackies. Sure, Warhol’s depiction of Jackie Kennedy at Jack’s funeral is a haunting symbol of American death, disaster, and grief, all chewed up and spit out by tabloid media. Yet, isn’t JonBenét an even better portrayal of our nation’s gruesome fascination with who-done-it mysteries and beauty destroyed by homicide? Certainly, John is not above true crime obsessions, famously attending the Manson Family trials (and, as he recounts in Shock Value, getting yelled at for waving at one of the girls).

JonBenét isn’t alone, though. She is joined by a constellation of other works that simply scream John Waters: a striking abstraction completed by Betsy the Chimpanzee, a tit print by pie-loving, frequently naked Warhol talker Brigid Berlin, Gary Lee Boas’s photograph of gleefully pearl-draped Elizabeth Taylor with legendary designer Halston in tow, and, naturally, a mid-sized Nan Goldin photograph of John himself and Cookie Mueller chatting excitedly at the premiere of Pink Flamingos in Provincetown. And what would a John Waters exhibition be without a fanatical altar to his own filth elders? This hallway also includes a few relics from and of his Holy Trinity (Warhol, Genet, Pasolini), including Richard Baker’s watercolor of Genet glumly sulking as if he’s posing for a mugshot on the cover of Funeral Rites.

Susan Lowe, Mink Stole, 2006, Wax crayon on paper (photo by me)

Though this hallway is organized to introduce the audience to John’s influences (or as the exhibition checklist refers to them, touchstones), the rest of the exhibition isn’t much different. While a few works directly come from fellow Dreamlanders such as Susan Lowe’s Picasso-esque crayon portrait of Mink Stole and Multiple Maniacs’ Lobstora creator Vincent Peranio’s beguiling painting of a woman in mud tones as if the Mona Lisa crawled in dirt, the collection largely hits each and every one of John’s easily identifiable aesthetic obsessions. This makes it seem as if all the artwork was commissioned specifically for him. There’s camp in the form of Michael Jackson’s botched face peering through a peephole in Gary Hume’s Michael, Kathe Burkhart’s rendering of post-facelift Liz Taylor captioned rudely, “SLIT,” George Stoll’s chiffon toilet paper roll, and perhaps the pinnacle of camp, Cary Leibowitz’s Pepto-Bismol puke pink painting that swishly shouts out the two pillars of mid-20th century out gay men: “Gore Vidal! Paul Lynde!” Two forms of trash appear in the exhibition: literal rubbish with Peter Hujar’s moody garbage-strewn NYC street scene and a class designation like Cindy Sherman’s down-and-out Unwed Mother. And what would a John Waters collection be without filth? John seems to have a preference for grimy mirrors such as Tony Matelli’s smudged Yo and Mike Kelley’s coke-and-blood-stained Dirty Mirror, which thankfully obscures any reflection, as John notes in Role Models, “not that you’d want to see your face after a night like this.” Some of the work is so closely tied to John’s own singularly demented crackpot vision that it resembles his own artwork, as previously collected in his retrospective Indecent Exposure. Larry Clark’s photographed daytime television talk show starring clean-cut yet surly Kevin, “a former Satanist” recalls John’s own storyboard-like mashup of niche TV and films.

Installation view of “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection” with Cary Leibowitz, Kathe Burkhart, and Tom Sachs (Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art)

Yet artworks that instantaneously fit right into John’s berserk sensibilities like Karin Sander’s potentially deadly mold abstraction, Paul Lee’s stiff cum-stained washcloth, Richard Baker’s collection of pills, and Mike Kelley’s juvenile delinquent-scrawled alterations of history textbook illustrations somehow pale in comparison to the ones that don’t. Not that I dislike these works. Obviously, camp, trash, and filth are my chosen aesthetic categories too and I’ve heaped praise upon many of these very artists on Filthy Dreams. Yet, there’s something deeper and more interesting going on in the manner John imposes his unbalanced eye even on artworks that exude an antagonistically self-serious formal fixation. This ranges from the aggressively mundane such as Douglas Padgett’s paintings of light switches and electrical sockets to the materially preoccupied like Tadashi Kawamata’s Destruction no. 8, featuring shards of wood jutting from the walls like a construction project gone awry, to the downright impenetrable such as Richard Tuttle’s cartoon ghost-shaped Peace and Time, which John himself nails as “a failed woodwork project left unclaimed from summer camp.” Carl Andre’s belligerently minimalistic 1 X 13 Al Block had me praying for someone to trod by with stilettos due to the label’s warning: “You are invited to gently walk across the artwork. High heels, wheelchairs, and strollers may become caught in the spaces between the tiles, causing harm to visitors and artwork.” Dear god, please! Hell. John even made me enjoy a duct tape painting by Tom Sachs whose art I never really paid any attention to until I inadvertently triggered a shitstorm laughing at the Art World Family, which has now culminated in charges of assholeism (and caused me to have to avoid calls from Page Six while in the BMA).

Installation view of “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection” (Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art)

Perhaps the best example, though, is one of John’s most beloved roommates about whom he’s gushed ad nauseam throughout the years: Cy Twombly. As John explains in Role Models, “Nobody can overwhelm me like Cy Twombly. He puts me in a rapture of defiance and anger that immediately turns to tranquility.” At BMA, Twombly’s suite of lithographs, Five Greek Poets and Philosopher, consists of giant off-centered (therefore partially cut-off) scribbled names like Homer and Sappho. The series looks as if it was doodled by a particularly well-read four-year-old. This shaky flunked handwriting lesson is paired with an unintentional artwork: Twombly’s address written in that same janky lettering. Though there’s no shortage of art historical theorizing about Twombly, John simplifies things in the exhibition’s audio tour: “And I know all the intellectual writing about Cy Twombly is about history and about things that came before in literature. But come on, this is about bad handwriting.”

Two of Cy Twombly’s Five Greek Poets and Philosopher, 1978 (photo by me)

He’s not wrong. And that’s the point—almost any viewer, no matter their knowledge or fluency in contemporary art, could agree with John’s assessment. And likely get a laugh out of it too. John’s strength—and what makes the more staunchly formalist additions to Coming Attractions so captivating—is how he uses humor to tear down viewers’ intimidation, which often leads to fury at contemporary art. By doing so, he makes art more accessible if still challenging. Though John is quite clearly attracted to the art that whips viewers up into a frenzy, he also has a knack for inviting people into it by offering that the exact reason why you kneejerk hate a piece—bad handwriting, for instance—is why it’s also misanthropically hilarious. And that’s one way to get people to engage with art as seen in the inclusion of John’s father’s artwork C-R-A-Z-Y, scratched on a piece of cardboard in reaction to John’s purchase of a Twombly (“You bought that? They saw you coming, boy!”). More than another tired “my kid could do that” chestnut, John sees his father’s mockery, as well as his pitch-perfect rendition of Twombly’s horrid chicken-scratch penmanship, as a way to interact with art: “And it just proved that I infected him with contemporary art, no matter what. And even though he thought he hated Twombly, he didn’t, subconsciously.”

Ironically, John has always claimed to get a kick out of contemporary art’s snobbishness, most succinctly stated in his oft-repeated aphorism: “Contemporary art hates you.” Similarly, John has formerly compared contemporary art to “a biker gang,” a refrain he reiterates in the exhibition booklet: “To me, art is like a biker gang. There are extremes: you have to learn a special language, there’s a killing room. It’s all hilarious. And you must dress a certain way. When the art world went to Marfa, Texas, the locals thought Satanists were moving in because everybody dressed in black.” While John is certainly spot-on about the alienating cliquishness of the contemporary art world that seeks to isolate those in lower price brackets, for all his admitted love the way he himself talks about contemporary art does the opposite. He strips away the pretension by reveling in art’s hilarity.

John Waters Sr., C-R-A-Z-Y, 1991, Graphite on paper (photo by me)

Part of how John achieves this is through his absolutely phenomenally hysterical analysis of artwork. On Fischli & Weiss’s tryingly tedious photograph of a cargo airport runway, Airport-Federal Express: “rejected third choices from some corporate advertising calendar.” On Mike Kelley’s haphazard and deeply pathetic Child Substitute: “looks like a five-year-old retarded boy began cutting out pictures of animals from Sunday newspaper supplement ads but lost his train of thought and abandoned the project.” On Christopher Wool’s stark toilet and sink photograph, Untitled (West Texas), that appears more like a prison cell or a putrid gas station bathroom than an artist studio: “I look at it in awe that any artist could take a picture that ugly.” As a critic, John’s own art writing makes me seethe with envy and contemplate either improving my own skills or quitting entirely.

The combined thrill and jealousy I feel when confronted with John’s art criticism exposes the one major misstep in the exhibition. I know these quotes, as well as many more, some of which are scattered throughout this review, because I have read anything I can get my hands on related to John Waters. I’ve devoured Role Models and Art: A Sex Book. I’ve poured over the exhibition’s takeaway booklet and the transcript of the audio guide (that details only ten works) as provided in the Coming Attractions press materials Dropbox. All of which means I’m more than aware that the joy I received in Coming Attractions would not be shared by all. Unlike other exhibitions in the museum such as Darrel Ellis: Regeneration, the labels, with exception of the Carl Andre warning, were devoid of any context or information whatsoever. No explanatory text of who these artists (or Dreamlanders) are or even better, John’s own interpretation of his roommates. Further evidence of John’s correct assessment that contemporary art does, in fact, hate you by not really caring if you come away with any appreciation. Or at least the curators do.

Catherine Opie. John. 2013, printed 2022. Collection of John Waters © Catherine Opie. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London

And I know what you’re saying: Emily, most people who will go to Coming Attractions will also be fans of John Waters. This is Baltimore after all! Get over it! Why should a museum waste all those trees by printing out extended wall-label essays?

Well, when I was wandering around the show, under the watchful glare of the security guards who were likely wondering why I was lingering in the exhibition for so long, a gaggle of high school students led by a museum docent squeezed into the exhibition space. Rather than fleeing the cramped room as was my immediate impulse, I lurked around, listening in like a peeping Tom. “Who knows who John Waters is?” asked the docent. Not one student responded. “Hairspray,” she prompted. Nothing. These are, presumably, local teens! How dare they?! Once I got over my righteous anger on behalf of a filth elder, I realized this was a wake-up call for just how marginal John still is even though he did subversively go mainstream years ago. Although John may now run his own summer camp for freaks, there are those—a lot of those—visiting the museum who will come into the exhibition wondering who the hell that pervert with the pedo mustache and skull-printed jacket is in Catherine Opie’s displayed photograph.

I suspect John might be tickled at the thought of kids having no clue who he is rather than giving in to some narcissistic Mommy Dearest-like diva moment. Yet, as any good cult leader knows, your cult is nothing without consistently recruiting new followers. And the BMA would be the perfect place for contemporary art biker gang recruitment if they so desired. I guess we have to wait for the full feature.

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