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John Waters Brings Transgressive Art to the Wex

Hope Madden Hope Madden John Waters Brings Transgressive Art to the WexJohn Waters, Divine in Ecstasy, 1992. Chromogenic print. Collection of Amy and Zachary Lehman. Image courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery
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If you think John Waters’ drive to celebrate filth and confront the status quo could be contained within cinema, the Wexner Center for the Arts has a treat for you.

John Waters: Indecent Exposure — an exhibition of more than 160 photographs, sculptures, sound works and moving image pieces — opens at the Wex on Feb. 2 and runs through April 28. The show will preview on Friday, Feb. 1, and the artist will join author and critic Lynne Tillman for an onstage conversation on Monday, March 18.

According to the Wex, the exhibit “is organized around themes of pop culture, the movie industry, the contemporary art world, the artist’s childhood and identity, and the transgressive power of images.”

John Waters. Jackie Copies Divine’s Look, 2001. Collection of James Mounger, New Orleans. Image courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery

This is only the second venue to host the exhibit, which premiered in Waters’ hometown Baltimore Museum of Art in October 2018. Waters, for one, is happy to see his work showcased there.

“I was thrilled they were going to be the second place this went,” he says. “I like it there, I like the whole atmosphere. It’s such a strong contemporary art museum.”

While Waters did not begin his career in contemporary art, he has always felt at home in the art world.  

“My films always worked in art theaters,” he says. “They never worked in real exploitation theaters. Those audiences didn’t think they were funny and ironic. They thought they were sexy and scary, and we were making fun of them in a way. I was always accepted in art houses – that’s where my trashiest, filthiest movies did best.”

Best known for the groundbreaking and envelope-pushing films he began directing in the mid-60s, Waters has been exhibiting visual art since 1992. The work remains thematically similar to his films. He’s still poking an affectionate jab at established ideas of art.

“I first took these little pictures off the TV screen,” he recalls. “I’m always kind of taking the thing that is the most loved and wrecking it, and that is contemporary art’s job: trying to wreck what came before, what’s accepted.”

“I didn’t start doing it until the 90s, but I was a collector since the 60s,” he explains. “I have in my living room a Jackie Kennedy by Warhol that was $100 in 1964.”

John Waters. Image courtesy of the artist.

Waters says he always felt very at home with contemporary art.

“Contemporary art can make you angry and it stuck with me, and I loved it and I followed it,” he says. “I love the art world. It’s like being in a biker gang. You have to know a secret language. You have to see in a different way. It’s a magic trick.”

He continues: “I’m making fun of the things I love. I might make fun of the art world and say ‘Contemporary Art Hates You’ [the name of one of his pieces], but I think it’s an affectionate jab and I’m in on it. I know the rules and the rules are crazy and sometimes comically elitist and intellectual. But at the same time I think you can have fun with it because it’s a secret language.”

His work contains many photos taken from TV screens showing movies. Why is that?

“I celebrate the failure of photography,” he says. “I mean, the photograph was always thought of as something that would never be accepted in fine art, and mine is anything but technique. Mine is snapped off a TV screen showing bad, blurry VHS. I am making fun of the failure, but subversively, also the meaning of the original directors.”

What his images show are mistakes — objects or moments that the audience is not meant to catch.

“You can see the marks on the floor that the actors have to hit, for instance.”

He says what he’s looking for is, “something you can’t see in a movie still. Something that ruins the whole shot.”

The exhibit also shares the artist’s 2014 video Kiddie Flamingos, featuring children reading from a G-rated version of Waters’ notorious 1974 film Pink Flamingos.

“I’m trying to say that art can be like a joke shop,” he says. “I’ve always loved joke shops.”

For more information, visit wexarts.org.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to a weekly rundown of all new theatrical and home entertainment movie releases on the SCREENING ROOM podcast.

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