Book Review: Moviemaker John Water’s Contemporary Art Practice is Examined in Indecent Exposure

Alternately ennobled with the titles “Prince of Puke,” “Pope of Trash,” and “The People’s Pervert,” Baltimore moviemaker John Waters is synonymous with his particular brand of bad taste, offering a loving ridicule of pop culture absurdity.

His films, in degrees of transgression, range from the feces-eating, anus-baring Pink Flamingos (1972) to the Broadway adapted musical Hairspray (1988).

With John Waters: Indecent Exposure, the Baltimore Museum of Art places Waters squarely in the art world. This exhibition catalog from the first retrospective of his visual arts career features thoughtfully organized images of photographs and sculpture along with a set of historical and interpretive essays that create associations and comparisons to other artists and art movements.

Not just a celebrated provocateur in film and memoir, here Waters’ consistent level of humor and self-parody often come as a light prodding at pomposity in the art world. He also provides a charming sense of self-parody. His self-referential works feature on-set photographs of comically banal details, actor location marks, and drink coolers, and a director’s chair labeled “HACK.

The Takeaway

Though there is no question of Hileman’s enthusiasm for Waters’ art, that much of his art has sprung from his own cult personality as a filmmaker, makes another filmmaker long for Hileman to focus more on associations in his own career. References to other visual artists are, at times, so tenuous as to seem desperate to convince the reader of his worth outside of filmmaking.

Her writing on Waters’ sincerity in his appreciation of trash culture and his fascination with celebrity make the read wholly worthwhile. Moviemakers are sure to appreciate his collection of “little movies,” in which he re-cuts frames from his own films and others to construct pithy haiku-like alternative narratives, a Kuleshov-esque demonstration of the absurdity of montage theory.

Waters is understandably most enjoyable in his own words, and in his concluding interview with photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, he demonstrates the humor and intelligence that has made him successful in each creative arena. MM

John Waters: Indecent Exposure was released by University of California Press on October 16, 2018. 

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