So you think you know everything there is to know about Baltimore-based writer and filmmaker John Waters?
You’ve seen every version of “Hairspray” and read every Waters book since “Shock Value.” You’ve sipped cocktails at Club Charles. You’ve visited Edith Massey’s old shop in Fells Point and checked out the spot where Divine ate dog poop in “Pink Flamingos.”
But there’s another side of John Waters that even many of his fans don’t know much about, and it’s on display in a comprehensive exhibit that opened last week at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“Indecent Exposure,” which runs through Jan. 6, provides a look at John Waters the visual artist, creator of photos, sculptures, graphic art and videos separate from his books and movies. Waters, 72, has been creating visual art since the 1990s. This is the first retrospective of his work in his hometown and his first exhibit at the BMA (besides a 2016 showing of “Kiddie Flamingos”) in decades.
“I haven’t seen a lot of this work in 20 years,” Waters said during a press preview for the exhibit. “To see it all together is kind of amazing…I’m really, really thrilled to be back.”
“Waters is highly admired for his career as a filmmaker, but is less known for his work as an artist,” said Kristen Hileman, the museum’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, in a statement.
“It has been incredibly rewarding to develop an exhibition that highlights his influence as an artist, and participant in and critic of contemporary culture. His work has had a huge impact on an evolving and more encompassing idea of American identity and provides an important perspective on how we assert ourselves as individuals contributing to a community that embraces difference.”
The show includes more than 160 works that together add up to a sort of parallel universe to the worlds that viewers see in Waters’ movies. While they may take different forms than books and films, they also contain his renegade sense of humor and demonstrate his ability to see life as an outsider. Many touch on gay themes.
There is “Hetero Flower Shop,” 10 photos of floral arrangements created by straight florists, all mediocre or worse. “Loser Gift Basket” shows all the items that might be given to people at the Academy Awards who don’t win an Oscar (think Preparation H and a can of pork and beans.)
“Bill’s Stroller” is a baby stroller for gay parents into the leather scene, with a harness to strap the baby in and logos of sex clubs on the seat. It’s a nod both to S&M culture and the fact that gay couples are raising children very much like straight couples these days.
The common theme to the works, Waters said, is that they have “some sensibility about being an outsider, being the ‘other’ and everything, no matter …if it’s gay or straight or minority or anything that’s not fitting in. “
As an artist, he said, “you learn how to do that. And this show, the whole art world, is about that. The whole art world is a secret club that learns how to see something that regular people can’t see. That’s my perspective, totally.”
Waters notes that the fact he is gay doesn’t mean he lets the LGBTQ community off easily.
“I make just as much fun of gay people, in a way, because they’re now stricter with their rules than my parents — what you’re allowed to do and what you can make jokes about and everything. So I try to make fun of them too.”
Occupying most of the museum’s Thalheimer Galleries, the retrospective is divided thematically into pop culture, the movie industry, the contemporary art world, an autobiographical section, and a gallery that contains “mature content” parents might not want their children to see.
Waters serves as writer and editor, often manipulating or juxtaposing images created by others, or working with collaborators to fabricate three-dimensional objects.
“It’s like conceptual art,” he says. “I’m telling stories…I’m going into other people’s movies, taking images and putting them in a new narrative…I want it to be off kilter, hopefully like my sense of humor is… I only make fun of things I really like.”
The exhibit includes highlights from earlier shows that were mounted outside Baltimore.
“Beverly Hills John” depicts what Waters would look like if he had a facelift. In “No Smoking and Children Who Smoke,” Waters takes images of World War II-era movie stars while they are smoking and puts their cigarettes in the mouths of child actors.
“Rush” depicts a big yellow bottle of poppers, with some of the liquid spilled on the floor. When it was first shown in 2009, he said, the company “liked it so much they sent me a lifetime supply.” “Slimy JW” looks at first glance like a slithering snake. But one end is shaped like a penis, turning the snake into a giant dildo.
In the autobiographical gallery, a series of prints reveals the contents of the artist’s dishwasher and freezer, and shows what’s under his bed. “308 Days” replicates his ‘to do’ list over the course of a year, with tasks crossed off after he completes them. Viewers may be reminded of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s 1982 calendars, without Kavanaugh’s references to beer drinking.
Three prints in the exhibit pay homage to Mr. Ray, the hair weave king whose commercials ran on local TV when Waters was growing up. Side by side photos compare the Versailles apartments in Towson to Versailles in France. Waters even includes a portrait of himself that his parents commissioned when he was a boy.
“I wasn’t unhappy, especially,” he said of his childhood. “I had lots of friends…in my mind really.“
Waters makes fun of the art world, with faux-amateurish images entitled “Badly Framed” and “Congratulations,” which features uneven lettering that spells out “DID NOT SELL” (made from the red dots gallery owners use to mark works that did sell.)
He takes a jab at the museum world’s penchant for showing works a certain way in “Hardy Har,” a framed flower photo that comes with a mark on the floor that seems to warn visitors not to get too close. If they cross the line, the flower squirts them with water.
Waters also capitalizes on his fascination with celebrities and other public figures, from Elizabeth Taylor to Justin Bieber to Divine. There is “Sneaky JFK,” showing the former president in drag; “Playdate,” a sculpture showing Charles Manson and Michael Jackson as adult babies, and two works devoted to Don Knotts, who played deputy sheriff Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Waters has said he wants to film a movie called “The Don Knotts Story,” if he ever had the money. “Sometimes on a bad day I feel like Don Knotts,” he confessed during the press preview.
The exhibit includes “Kiddie Flamingos,” a video in which children in wigs read a G-rated version of Pink Flamingos, and some of Waters’ earliest and grainiest films, presented in a peep show format. It’s supplemented by a coffee table catalogue featuring essays about Waters’ work as a visual artist.
The museum has scheduled a number of tie-in events, including a conversation between Waters and Hileman on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. and a “Waters Film Marathon” on Nov. 9 and 10. After it closes in Baltimore, “Indecent Exposure” will be on exhibit at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, from Feb. 2 to April 28, 2019.
An art collector as well as an artist, Waters often says that he doesn’t trust people when they call themselves artists.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” is his standard response.
With “Indecent Exposure,” Waters is literally exposing museum-goers to his body of visual work and inviting them to decide for themselves.