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Finally, it's Baltimore's Turn to See the Show John Waters Stole From Television

Quel Drag: Divine makes an appearance in Waters' "Winged Victory."

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/6/2002

John Waters: Straight to Video

John Waters

C. Grimaldis Gallery through Dec. 1

Even when John Waters is relaxing in front of the television, he's still thinking about what would make a good shot. As he watches some old movie, the film director will also often be holding a still camera, shooting photographs directly off the screen. Then he'll take those photos and "redirect" the movies by constructing new storyboards, reflecting his own need-one-say obsessive interest in things like Liz Taylor's hair.

Waters has exhibited his photographic work in galleries around the world for the past 10 years, and he also published a book of them, Director's Cut. Although plenty of Baltimoreans know that Waters is not only a director but also a photographer, art collector, and habitué of the art world, as spoofed in his 1998 movie Pecker, only now can we see a solo show of his photos in a hometown gallery.

Viewed within the pristine setting of the C. Grimaldis Gallery, Waters' exhibit Straight to Video neatly fits into contemporary photographic concerns. Images from pop culture are captured on photograph, lifted from their contexts, and then set into new ones. The appropriated pictures form a new visual story line, sometimes accompanied by narrative-encouraging bits of text. And everything is matted and framed as exactingly as a traditionally conceived "fine art" photograph would be. Gallery goers equipped with an artspeak vocabulary will find that Waters' photo sequences succeed as tightly edited commentaries on our image-overloaded, mass media-driven culture.

It's interesting to see what this manic filmmaker does with the stillness of still photos, but let's face it, the real fun is to go through the show as a movie buff. Look for the stars' faces. Try to guess which obscure movie an image was lifted from. Contemplate what's going on inside the sane mind of the man who shot all these insane photos.

Waters' own cinematic career obviously factors into the show, but not as much as you might expect. There are direct Waters references, to be sure. Just take a look at "Mr. Ray," a TV commercial-derived, three-photograph sequence devoted to the Baltimore hair-weave entrepreneur. Seeing Mr. Ray's straightforward advertising text and portraits of the man himself is like revisiting one of the formative influences on Waters' worldview. The director's own underground pantheon of cinematic stars is present, too, but mostly as part of larger pictorial sequences. In the 11-shot sequence titled "The Hot Seat," you can pick out Divine sizzling in the electric chair in a still from Waters' Female Trouble, but the other electrocution-themed images come from sources like The Simpsons.

Because the late Divine was such an influence-conscious drag queen, it seems appropriate that Waters' recent photo narratives also acknowledge the fashion sources of inspiration that Divine and Waters both shared. In "Winged Victory," there are five nearly identical shots of Divine wearing a winged collar dress. Hanging nearby, a separate piece titled "Dorothy Malone's Collar" features nine photos from Malone films in which the actress wears high-collar blouses that accentuate her assertively blonde presence.

Most of the appropriated photos in these pieces seem to involve little or no cropping, but that's not at all the case with another one of Waters' fashion tributes. "Liz Taylor's Hair and Feet" contains many tightly cropped images that call attention either to portions of Taylor's hairdo or to varieties of her footwear. These are the kinds of details that Divine and Waters were known to obsess over, and they're perfect subject matter for a single-minded photo sequence. Fetishists take note.

Likewise, Waters can indulge other, er, interests. The 10 vividly colorful shots comprising "Puke in the Cinema," for instance, are photos of screen characters embracing the ceramic god or otherwise letting loose. To use a pornographic term, these are "money shots" in which the actors puke by way of climax.

Besides tracking character wardrobes and behavior, these photo narratives occasionally emulate the narrative of a particular film. This is done most faithfully in the 10-photo "Tingler," which effectively synopsizes William Castle's 1959 horror film, with images of the screen credits, the monster in action, and characters screaming. Other pieces pay cheeky homage to such directors as Otto Preminger and David Lean. One of the funniest pieces in the show, "Reputation," consists only of six shots of directors' names as they appear in the opening credits from their films. Reading the sequenced images from left to right, you see the imposing names of Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, and then, at the far right, Randal Kleiser of Blue Lagoon fame. Oh, John, you're still a naughty boy.

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