When I stopped by the Marianne Boesky Gallery on an exceedingly chilly Saturday afternoon, just one day after the opening of John Waters’ Beverly Hills John exhibition– the raunchy filmmaker’s been featured in a number of solo shows across the country since 2000– the place was packed with an awkward mix of tourists and people who seemed to be in the know. One woman snapped a photo of a sculpture depicting a mini-living room, a memorial dedicated to the late Mike Kelley, an artists who continues to be an inspiration to Waters. In a speech given at UCLA, Waters dubbed Kelley a “terrorist and a hero.”
But a gaggle of spray-tanned young women in puffy coats reminded me that Waters’ work is still shocking to some. “Oh my God,” each of them gasped, pointing mouths agape at the Library Science series of prints juxtaposing pulpy book covers alongside Waters’ own more explicit reinterpretations headlined with double entendres like “God’s Little Faker,” “Some Like It Hard,” and “A Bit Of Brown.” Nicely done.
I don’t think Divine eating dog poo will ever become the equivalent in American culture of George Bailey holding up little Zuzu and kissing her furiously, but I figured by now Waters’ well-known antics would have become less awe-inducing. But somehow it’s comforting to know that the filmmaker, even through fine art, retains his ability to gross out normies.
The more “rattling” pieces are the slightly more ambiguous works, ones that require a closer reading. An enormous and technicolor-bright self-portrait depicts Waters kneeling on the perfectly manicured lawn of a white-washed home. He’s dressed up as a dog catcher, and smiling his trademark shit-eating grin while clutching some tools of the trade. There’s something menacing about his expression and whatever the hell is happening in the photograph, yet it’s somehow all so commonplace. I’m sure at one point some dog catcher somewhere in middle America with a complete lack of self-awareness knelt for a similar portrait.
In Beverly Hills, Waters is at his most playful when he pokes fun at the dominant culture of the present. For a few pieces he sheds the references to post-War suburban stagnancy and conformity that we’ve come to expect from Waters, and updates his target. The large portrait of Justin Bieber’s hideously distorted face paints him as the victim of an extreme and possibly botched plastic surgery job– puffy puckered lips, face lifted, brow sculpted– something that is both delightfully satisfying to look at and actually inevitable.
Waters’ best play on sexual deviancy is his twisted version of a tricked-out stroller. I found myself muttering, “Oh yeah, that’s nastyyyyyyy,” when I first laid eyes on the S&M baby carriage complete with a black leather bondage harness and a canopy printed all over with phalluses aimed straight at little Sophie or Liam. One particularly drippy penis delicately droops from the “o” in “Blow Buddies,” and another is tangled up between two mustachioed dudes gleefully embracing in what is apparently an advertisement for a place called the “Hungry Hole Saloon.”
Thanks, John Waters, for continuing to deliver. Don’t ever change.