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Fever Kitsch

John Waters isn't afraid to take aim at himself in his visual artworks

John Waters, "Versailles," 2009, 2 c-prints, Each image: 8 x 10 inches, Framed: 14 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches, Edition of 5

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 2/10/2010

On Jan. 20, an unusual crowd spilled out the door, down the steps, and onto the sidewalk in front of the C. Grimaldis Gallery. A mix of formally dressed and costumed gallery-goers intermingled in the customarily conservative setting, equally anxious to see celebrity filmmaker and artist John Waters and the works in his solo show, Versailles. Renowned for neat, elegant exhibitions, Grimaldis would seem an odd venue for the Waters who built his reputation on movies such as Pink Flamingos, but Waters the artist is exactly that: neat, elegant, and comparably subdued.

Along the walls of the gallery, modestly sized photographs traditionally framed with clean, generous mats offer an array of humorous, albeit tame, non-sequiturs. The neatness of presentation and images from old movies give Waters' work a dated, almost nostalgic feel, referencing postcards and other collectable ephemera. Each image is its own self-contained joke, or pun, culled from its place in culture and re-examined in a new context to highlight its absurdity. "Versailles," the title image and only piece that directly refers to Baltimore, is a photo of the Palace of Versailles outside Paris next to the Versailles apartment complex of Towson. The two images, displayed at equal size in the same frame, are an understated smirk at the suburban apartment complex's grasp at grandeur. In the image "9/11," two movie title card, one for Doctor Dolittle 2 and the other for A Knight's Tale--both 2001 releases--offers an accurate but facetious document of the time period.

Waters' appropriated film stills, arranged in one-liner narratives, encapsulate his knack for voyeurism and comic timing. "Bad Trip," a seven-frame narrative beginning with "Have you ever been on a trip?," shows a woman's face five different times. In each frame, her face is contorted in horror, with a skull spliced in between the first three and last two. Other images depict single, laughable frames of movie titles and credits. "Melissa," a personal favorite, is a dreamy image of a blue sky with starring melissa rivers written garishly across a cloud. Another, "Haunted," hung next to the gallery's entrance, is a single frame of a title card, evidently for the movie entitled My Ass is Haunted. The kitsch in Waters' work is referential and smart; a Baltimore version of Andy Warhol and Richard Prince.

As well as his two-dimensional works, Waters' Versailles includes three sculptures and a sound piece, which loops through an undisguised set of speakers. In the front room of the gallery, "Rush," a GNC-like bottle on its side whose tagline is liquid incense, resembles an enlarged joke-store gag object, with a polyurethane puddle pooling beneath it. The large, socially acceptable "rush" is placed next to the sound installation "The Sound of a Hit," audio of a monetary negotiation, presumably for a seedier source of feel-goodery.

"Study Art" hangs further back in the gallery, a wall-mounted, palette-shaped sign that reads study art for prestige or spite. Here, Waters appears to take a self-conscious swipe at artistic aspiration, despite having himself achieved artistic success. "Bad Directors Chair" is perhaps a similarly self-deprecating reference to his own non-gallery work. The classic canvas chair is adorned with words such as hack and reshoot, and holds a leather-bound script titled piece of shit in gold lettering.

While his movies have become mainstream, and their humor universally entertaining, Waters' artwork is drier and deliberately created for a loftier audience. The filmmaker and the artist are two separate identities, each aware of the others' merits and shortcomings. The art is entertaining, and the movies artful, but they are held to a separate standard of critical and commercial success. Despite the basis of his fame, in the gallery world Waters is consciously, almost forcibly reserved; there are no feces in this show. In many cases, Waters the filmmaker is the butt of jokes for this blue-chip gallery audience. "John Jr."--a wood-framed photo of a wood framed, pastel portrait of the artist as a child--is further scrutiny of self-identity, in this case as poignant as it is humorous. Waters' artwork is decidedly sophisticated, built on but breaking from his other pursuits. Here, he examines himself as a character and celebrity, finding humor in his own predictability to be surprising.

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