The space between good humor and bad taste is a line as thin as John Waters' famous pencil-stash, but the Prince of Pervy Polymaths has been straddling that divide with unwavering style and grace for over half a century. This past Sunday, Mr. Waters further proved this sentiment by opening a comprehensive, salon-style retrospective of his finer artistic works at The Baltimore Museum of Art, appropriately titled, Indecent Exposure.
The show, which runs through January 6, features 160 photographs, sculptures, and video and sound works, either pulled from Waters' own comprehensive cinematic oeuvre or rudely extracted from the American cultural ether, only to be thrown right back in our faces with a warm smile.
The exhibition, ripe with uncanny Michael Jackson and Charles Manson baby dolls, a secret-under-penalty-of-death film frame on a literal pedestal, and prescient, custom-made tabloid fodder, concludes with a gallery devoted to personal ephemera: photos of Waters with Andy Warhol, an actual Joan Miró print, and a hologram-image that morphs between Justin Bieber and the artist himself. Viewers willing to disengage with their phones for a moment can also disappear into three curtained-off peep-shows featuring footage from Waters' rarely seen underground movies of the 1960s.
Regardless of the medium, Waters is most interested in juxtapositions. In Manson Copies Brad Pitt, 2003, two chromogenic prints — one of the recently deceased serial killer and the other of the aging heartthrob — face off with gruffy hipster beards and aviator sunglasses, somehow foretelling Pitt's involvement in Tarantino's upcoming Manson-related film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It's a commentary on cultish obsession and the dark under-pool of celebrity culture but it's also just a quirky catalyst for a throwaway laugh.
There's Doubles, 1995, which shows Water's late muse, Divine, pictured beside an image of Elizabeth Taylor, their overall diva aesthetics meshing into each other over a long enough timeline. In his 2014 Library Science series, Waters continues with his bizarro, dreamland renditions, presenting classic paperback novel covers like Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang beside his own, naughtier Clitty Clitty Bang Bang (#4). These works, though silly across the board, actually dig deep into corners of the American psyche that we're simply too afraid to acknowledge (we're all horny little toads) until they slap us in our ridiculously incredulous faces. Each art object is a portal into a very timely discussion — #MeToo's complex sex and gender implications mingling with systemic political corruption — though it becomes clear Waters has explored similar themes numerous times over the years.
Now 72, the director, writer, author and artist seems to exist as some sort of mischievous Merlin figure, somehow moving backwards through time with a treasure trove of hindsight like the famed wizard in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, while mere mortals, heroes and villains alike, slog forward through existence with an equal portion of fear and anxiety over the uncertainty of our collective, tenuous future. In experiencing this show, viewers are reminded that Americans have been through some difficult and truly weird times before, and will most likely emerge from this current, little dark age only to plunge into a seemingly new brand of absurdity just around the bend.
We were lucky enough to hang with Waters in a corner booth at Gertrude's Chesapeake Kitchen, nestled within The Baltimore Museum of Art. In person, Waters is everything you'd hope he'd be: honest, open, polite, naughty, and funny as hell. Black coffee was slurped in spades while the Crab Cake Du Jour went criminally untouched.
Thank you for sitting down with me.
Sure, sure, I'm glad you came to Baltimore.
I'm not used to walking through a museum and laughing so loudly and so frequently.
I laugh sometimes at an artist's nerve. Sometimes someone will do something that can be so artless, or so the opposite of what it used to take to be an artist. God knows, talent is not enough, or craft. Some artists still do that in a great way — make work based on craft and talent. To me, I celebrate failure.
Can you elaborate?
It's the opposite of Ansel Adams, basically. I do photography, but not "beautiful" photography. To take images off a TV screen from a VHS with real film is kind of the lowest form of photography you can get. I'm trying to parody the art world, the movie business and everything, but at the same time, I love both of those things, so I'm celebrating what can go wrong or right and how sometimes in the movie business, when something goes wrong, it fails, when in the art world, it often starts a new art movement.
You've certainly pushed the cultural conversation.
I'm a storyteller. It's what I do, no matter the field. I'm just telling stories in a briefer manner, in a much more high concept way and at the same time asking you to come along into the art world and celebrate the most ludicrously elitist part of it, which I find delightful. I like all that, but you have to learn the rules before you can make fun of them.
Or break them.
Is there something frustrating about continually embracing or even pursuing failure and ultimately being such a success?
No, no, no. It's funny because I haven't changed really. I have a piece in here called 12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot. Yesterday I had to train the docents, which are many elderly women who volunteer and gives tours to groups and everything, and I had to show them what was behind the curtain: 12 sequential nude images of men's... assholes after completing a gay porn scene. And I even made it worse, I said, "Don't worry, it doesn't squirt like the other painting that shoots water." They all laughed. They were fine with it.
Why do you think that is?
Because I'm not mean. If you're gonna come see a show by me called Indecent Exposure, what do you think you're gonna get? Something that's gonna make you laugh and hopefully make you a little bit horrified, too.
You, somehow, whether due to your demeanor or politeness, make it all OK.
I know in the art world, what is hated the most is celebrity art. I hate it, too. I can't escape the fact that I am known for other stuff before this. So basically, I try to make fun of it. I have a piece where I mark out my headshots. I'm always defacing any kind of value that's been given to me. I try to embrace it, but not take it too seriously. When people tell me, "I'm an artist," I say, "Really? I think history will be the judge of that."
"I know in the art world, what is hated the most is celebrity art. I hate it, too."
There are some things in this show that might normally offend people in other settings, but not you, not here. Do you have a license to push boundaries that others don't?
There are 9/11 things in this show. I have a piece (9/11, 2006) showing the titles of the two movies that were supposed to be shown on board the two planes [Dr. Doolittle 2, A Knight's Tale]. That's really creepy. Is it funny? Well, I'd certainly rather crash into those buildings not watching those movies. Though apparently, they never had a chance to put them on. I'm imagining this tiny second of meaningless reality trying to find a detail about a tragedy that makes no difference, that no one wants to know, and somehow, I think that makes it more tragic. Imagine crashing into one of those buildings watching Dr. Doolittle 2.
I can't imagine doing that anywhere.
I filmed the Kennedy assassination scene in 1966, as you know. Later I shot them off the TV screen for that piece in there. But I could get in trouble. It could happen any day these days — one misstep...
We can stay on this topic by looking at the title of the show, Indecent Exposure. We're living in a time where public figures, Louis C.K. for instance —
Who's my friend. What happened to him wasn't because of his comedy though.
I know. It was the act of exposing himself in an indecent manner. Obviously, that doesn't fly. But he's an example of someone whose art scratches and hints at depravity, but ultimately acts as a front for his true deviant behavior. Have you thought about this at all in reference to the title?
I got arrested for indecent exposure for making Mondo Trasho (1969): "Conspiracy to commit indecent exposure." I never knew there was such a law. While I was in jail, I said, "We were making a movie." The guard said, "You're as guilty as the one who pulled it out." But nobody pulled it out! I think it was my assistant, Susan Allenback, who suggested that title — a perfect one. Film is exposed. I'm always aware of how far you can go. That's the line of comedy. It's still important. I've been investigating that in my career from the very beginning.
Campaign Button, 2004 by John Waters
In the back of the gallery, there's that Ed Sullivan piece (Headline #1, 2006).
Well, let me tell you, that piece was done five or seven years ago, way before #MeToo. That was a real headline in the National Enquirer ["Ed Sullivan Raped Starlet"]. To me, then, it was almost funny. The woman did say he did that. I believe her. But at the time it was so outrageous. First of all, how horrible to be raped by Ed Sullivan!
See you laugh. It's so horrible that nobody imagined sex of any kind, consensual or not with Ed Sullivan, but now, that headline is totally different.
Or the "Have Sex in a Photo Booth" piece (Campaign Button, 2004).
Yes. Trump wasn't in power when I did that. But now, with this election coming up, it becomes an entirely different thing.
These talking points and issues have always been a part of American culture. They've just been mutating. Civil rights, gender relations in the workplace, the way we approach sex in general. They've always been contentious issues, but in a very particular flavor that is very specific to that time. You always seem to be ahead of the curve.
It's all the type of real-life humor I would talk about with my friends, but at the same time, I am presenting it to a public. I understand that some people are not gonna go for it, but who would come and not go for it. I never get heckled or get mean questions. I get mean reviews, but I built a career on mean reviews. I'm not a separatist. I make fun of liberals, too. I think I am politically correct. People say, "How could you say that?" Easy, because I think I am.
It's difficult to discern what is "politically correct" or not these days.
My thing is, don't judge other people until you know the whole story. There's a piece in there called, Lovesick (2004) and it's two people screaming in horror. A lot of this show is about taking other peoples' images, rewriting and editing them to make a point I want to make. You don't change people's minds or get them to understand what you're doing without making them laugh. Like, Elizabeth Warren must be so no fun. I mean has she ever said a funny thing in her life? Or even laughed in public? She's not gonna change one person's mind.
People think Trump is funny.
I hate him, but he makes jokes about himself, belittles himself.
I've heard people say he functions much like a standup comedian.
Not one I'd pay to see. He's a hair hopper, someone who spends too much time on their hair and brags about being rich when they really never learned how to be rich properly, like a Swiss person does.
Do you feel like you take things that are usually said behind closed doors, not necessarily your thoughts, and thrust them into the public sphere?
That's a different thing. If everyone's emails were published everyone would be in deep trouble.
"I liked [Justin Bieber], but now he has religion, which I'm sad about."
I think there's a film out right now about that.
Everybody says things to a friend that they don't want used as a pull quote for an article. Believe me. You're speaking in an unguarded manner with people you trust that know how you actually think and feel. But you have to be very careful these days, obviously. You say one thing and your career is over. But I am careful... I think.
Yeah, but I've always done that. Like who would eat shit? There's no reason to do that. Johnny Knoxville would. He's the only one whose spirit is really close. The Jackass stuff was the most "in spirit" of my early films.
Are there actors now that you're interested in working with? I see that you've had an interest in the Biebs.
I liked [Justin Bieber], but now he has religion, which I'm sad about. It's making him —
Well, I liked him when he was bad and hanging out with rappers we never heard of, huffing paint and stuff like that. [Laughs] I don't know.
He had a "bad boy" moment.
He was going 60 miles an hour in a Ferrari. I didn't know they go that slow!
[Laughs] But are there any contemporary Dreamlanders out there right now who could fit into your universe?
I used to say to Todd Solondz, "Whoever said they'd say yes to you would say yes to me." There are actors I like. I love the star of Baby Driver (2017).
Yeah, and I love the villain [Eamon Farren as Richard Horne] in the Twin Peaks (2017) show who blew up on a mountain.
I have to ask about you potentially entering back into the cinematic landscape. These big streaming platforms with a treasure trove of production capital, they aren't leaping at the opportunity to work with you?
I could get movies made for a million, but I can't do that. I'm not going backwards. What am I gonna say to people, "Work for free?" I made 17 movies, it's not like I'm just starting out.
Can I tell you about my most memorable John Waters moment?
It was watching Pecker (1998) with my parents. I was maybe 15. We all discovered teabagging together. Is that moment or term as iconic as, say, the Divine shit moment?
No, because it's much more gentle to get teabagged. That's my nice movie... But I had something like that in every movie. In Mondo Trasho, I had "shrimping." In Multiple Maniacs (1970), I had lobster rape. In Pink Flamingos (1972) there's Coprophagia. In Female Trouble (74), auto rape. In Desperate Living (77), there was transgendered mutilation. In Polyester (81) foot stomping, ugh, let me think. In Hairspray, we had chubby chasing. In Cry-Baby (90): drinking tears. In Serial Mom (94), well, murder, really. [Laughs] In Cecil B. DeMented (2000) we had artistic-terrorism and in A Dirty Shame (2004), every sexual minority there is. I had jokes about sex acts in every movie I ever made.
But you are the king of coinage —
No, I had heard the term teabagging before. I didn't make it up.
No, but you brought it to the masses.
That's true. What happened once again, weirdly, was the Republican radicals coming up calling themselves that, having no idea what it meant. Rachel Maddow burst out laughing on television. You could hear the crew laughing when she was explaining what it meant. I guess later they found out.
But you've sewn yourself into culture in so many strange and unique ways. I think this show helps to illustrate that.
That's good. Half these pieces I haven't seen since they left the studio. Often they get sold or they're at a dealer's warehouse, but it's really special to see so many of them here where I grew up. When I first started my so-called art career, I couldn't have had this show in Baltimore in the beginning. I had to go all over the country and the world. But now it's the right time.
And you live and work primarily in Baltimore?
I have a house, an office and a studio here. I have an apartment in New York, one in San Francisco, and a summer rental in Provincetown (MA). That is my filth empire. [Laughs] But this show has very little to do with Baltimore, despite making most of the work here. There's one piece called Mr. Ray (2002), about the most notorious man in Baltimore history who sold wigs. There's another about a Baltimore housing development called Versailles (Versailles, 2009), which is so amazing. I have it pictured next to the real one.
Tell me about this city. Why is it special to you?
I always come here because it's away from everything else, but nearby, so I can go to every fancy art party if I want to and I don't want to every night. At the same time, I know real people here where my dinners aren't tax deductible, which proves you have a real life. I'm here also so I don't have to hear about other people and their lives and their art. I make movies about people who own 7/11s. You have to be around real people to make real work.
Study Art Sign (For Prestige or Spite), 2007 by John Waters
I loved the pieces that compel you to be an artist for shallow reasons like Study Art Sign [For Fun or Fame], 2007, Study Art Sign [For Profit or Hobby], 2007 and Study Art Sign [For Prestige or Spite], 2007.
Study Art! That was from a real art school in Baltimore that had that exact signage. I think it said "For Fun or Profit," which are the worst things you could ever say in the contemporary art world.
Were they winking at all?
Not. At. All. They were dead serious, but they were more for Sunday painters — commercial painters. The contemporary art world that you and I know, they didn't even know it existed. They were completely un-ironic. That's what made it so amazing to me.
I saw in the back of the gallery, photos with you and Andy Warhol. I feel as though his legacy is continually getting repackaged and repurposed, buried, unearthed; is his legacy even his anymore?
He still is the most influential artist of anyone's living time and his effect has seeped deeply into American culture. He influences people who haven't even heard of him. They just don't know how or why. I mean 'fifteen minutes of fame?' He's why selfies exist at all. So, I disagree. His influence is maybe stronger than ever.
What's it like, all these fascinating figures you featured in your films, like Divine or other people with whom you've connected along the way, passing on? Do you experience deeper longings for some of these people?
Sure, I have a lot in the new book about this topic.
What can you share about the new book?
It's called Mr. Know It All. It's my opinion on everything. But I'm still shocked that Divine is dead. He's probably more famous than he ever was. Ever! The movies keep playing. All drag has become more like Divine. When we started the drag queens were really square. They all wanted to be Miss America. They didn't want to be threatening. With Divine, people were completely misled. He wasn't transgender. He never dressed as a woman. He just wanted to scare hippies. [Laughs] He didn't want to be a woman.
"I think we should only have transgender people in the army."
What do you think about Caitlyn [Jenner]?
I think she deserves derision as a Republican. How can you be trans with Trump's position on the army for example? I think we should only have transgender people in the army.
[Laughs] I've been thinking about what's deemed controversial these days. I was just watching SNL recently, and Kanye West came out at the end with the MAGA hat.
I saw. I watched.
He starts talking about bullying, togetherness and freethinking.
Maybe if he didn't start off dancing in a Perrier bottle costume. [Laughs] That maybe ruined his credibility more than being for Trump, if you ask me.
I'm just thinking about all the stuff you've done, which is intentionally controversial, and to be clear, I think Kanye knows what he's doing.
I just think it's interesting, as controversial as Trump is, the idea of a guy, even if he's a black celebrity, getting on stage and saying 'I'm with the President' is so controversial is interesting.
Well, that's if you're watching SNL, not if you're watching Fox News. It just depends on the audience. It's a civil war. Why would Trump voters watch Saturday Night Live? It just makes fun of them. I mean, I think it's funny, the show. Talk about quick writing.
Have you ever done it?
You'd be great.
Maybe I could play Don Knotts. Or Steve Buscemi.
I want to ask about fashion. You always have the most fabulous jackets and blazers.
It's because I need pockets. I did once model for Comme des Garçons Paris actually. I modeled six or seven outfits in Le Monde for Terry Richardson. You need all the help you can get at my age. You should never wear name designers when you're young. You should think up the worst clothes and get them from the bottom barrel of the rejects at Value Village.
[Laughs] Being on this side of the interview table in late 2018, you have to be careful about commenting on the interviewee's appearance, but I have to say, you look amazing.
Well, you better get your eyeglasses fixed.
Beverly Hills John, 2012 by John Waters
A lot of people are not familiar with the faux-Botox, facelift photo you did (Beverly Hills John, 2012).
I think people think, Oh, he got a lot of work done.
That's what I was going to say. It's one of the first photos that comes up online.
You mean people think I really look like that now?
When I was canvassing around for questions for this interview, which I very rarely do, many people freaked out when they saw that facelift image. They were so angry with you for doing that. That was their immediate response post Googling you. For this authentic artist to go there was viewed as some huge betrayal.
I thought that might happen.
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What do you think about these major body alterations people are doing? Butt implants, lips, the works?
Well, if you're Amanda Lepore, I think it's great, because she's an art piece.
And the Kardashians?
I think the [PAPER] cover she did was great, but I still don't know who they are. I refuse to read an article about them. The PAPER one I did [read] because the cover was great. I have respect for Kim because she did get someone freed from prison. So, I was thinking maybe she could get my friend Leslie Van Houten freed. [Laughs] I doubt it. I do give her credit for that. It's the first thing she's ever done that made me care.
But what was your reaction when you saw that photo in the Oval Office of these two —
"And to be clear, there's not one bit of Trump in my art show."
And reality stars.
It looks like Nixon and Elvis. Feels similar.
I think that's why your perspective is so interesting. Meetings like that have been happening for decades. These archetypes will continually resurface.
This White House, no matter what happens, it's just exhausting. Even if you like him it must be exhausting. Every day it just gets lower and lower. At the same time, he's doing what he said he was gonna do.
He's certainly swinging for the fences.
The people who like him, they love that he pisses us off. They love it.
Divine in Ecstasy, 1992 by John Waters
I was thinking about Divine driving people off the road in Pink Flamingos and laughing his head off. Was he one of the earliest trolls? Or was it just punk in some way? I feel like the Donald is a troll. King Troll.
We wanted to get a rise out of you for artistic and cinematic reasons.
Not for political supremacy?
Not for political supremacy. No. Pink Flamingos was about fighting the tyranny of good taste, so to have someone with such terrible taste be our leader is not one bit fun. And to be clear, there's not one bit of Trump in my art show.
Photos courtesy of John Waters