John Waters opens a shocking BMA exhibit

By KANAK GUPTA | October 11, 2018

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John Waters’ exhibit Indecent Exposure opened on Oct. 7 at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The BMA dubs it “the first major retrospective of John Waters’ visual arts career in his hometown of Baltimore.” 

It features more than 160 provocative photographs, sculptures, videos and sound works. The exhibition is simultaneously hilarious and thought-provoking. 

John Waters is widely known for his hit film Hairspray (1988). The movie, set in Baltimore circa 1962, is a stirring yet entertaining advocate for body positivity and racial equality in the City. However, Hairspray happens to be one of the artist’s tamest works when compared to the transgressive, indie, cult films he rose to fame with. 

His extensive filmography with movies like Eat Your Makeup (1968), Mondo Trasho (1969) and Pink Flamingos (1972) has continuously and fearlessly tested the boundaries of propriety and transgression with  its dark humor and shock value. (In Pink Flamingos, an unedited one-take scene shows Divine, the lead actor of the movie, eating dog feces.) 

An openly gay man, Waters has been a staunch LGBTQ activist and has made many movies and works of art that reflect this sentiment. Since his earliest works, Waters has shot movies in and about Baltimore with his troupe of local actors called the Dreamlanders, which includes the famous drag queen Divine and recurring actors like Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary and more. 

The Dreamlanders not only make multiple appearances in his movies but are also a huge part of the artworks on display in the exhibition. 

Like his films, Waters’ exhibition aims to shock, excite and entertain its audience. It announces its jarring tone and subversive humor from the very first step you take into the hall. On display near the room’s ceiling is a large palette-shaped sign that reads, “Study Art: for profit or hobby.” This sign continues to appear in different parts of the exhibition, with the “for profit or hobby” being ironically replaced with such reasons as for “pride or power,” “fun or fame,” and “prestige or spite.” 

In his audio commentary, Waters says that the first sign (profit or hobby) was inspired by a sign that he saw on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. He was amused and astounded by how “politically incorrect” and “completely unironic” the sign was for any artist and thus recreated and parodied it many years later. 

In the following room is the most disturbingly hilarious piece in the exhibit: a work called Play Date that imagines a meeting between Charles Manson and Michael Jackson... as babies with adult heads. Waters wonders, if the two “media villains” had met as children, would their lives have been different? 

Manson, the cult leader and criminal with a strange amount of public support and notoriety, is a person of much interest to Waters and continues to appear in many of the artist’s other pieces in the exhibition. He has a series of images which compare Manson’s imitations of other celebrities’ styles, such as Brad Pitt and Divine. 

A large portion of the exhibition consists of series of film stills and images that Waters calls “movies.” One such grotesquely funny piece is called Birth Control, a sequence of images that shows stills of women giving birth from many different movies, with every alternate image being one of a woman screaming in labor, ending with the delivery of a monstrous, reptilian baby. 

A more whimsical piece called Liz Taylor’s Hair and Feet is a collection of pictures of, you guessed it, Liz Taylor’s hair and feet in all her movies. The images of the hair border a large frame with the center of the frame being left empty. Waters comments that he created this piece because he knew a lot of people who could simply look at the actress’ hairdo in a movie and recognize the movie. The blank space in the middle is supposed to reflect her “deep sadness” despite her fame. Waters commented that the feet are for the benefit of people with foot fetishes, and that there are fewer images of feet than of hair because of how difficult it is to see feet in movies. This is because the floor usually tends to have marks or equipment for filming that have to stay hidden on film. 

Among the funny, seemingly random pieces is a section called “Tragicomedy” – with pieces inspired by the 9/11 attacks that the artist witnessed. One of these pieces shows alternating images of the crash and doctored images of spaceships crashing into monuments around the world. 

An even more surprising piece called “9/11” is a set of two title cards, fashioned to imitate those of a serious action movie but for the movies “Dr. Doolittle 2” and “A Knight’s Tale” – the movies that were supposed to be shown on the flights that crashed into the towers. The work juxtaposes the mundane and the tragic and depicts the absurdity of some of Hollywood’s unremarkable movies playing during such an impactful moment.  

Other interesting art pieces in the exhibition included a humongous political button on the wall that read “Have sex in a voting booth!,” a section called “Contemporary Art Hates You” which riffs on the pretensions of the world of modern art, a piece called “Faux Video Room” – a velvet curtain that covers a black wall with a hidden speaker that pranks the audience into thinking that there is an actual video room behind it. There was also a photo-series called “12 Assholes and A Dirty Foot” which very explicitly displays exactly those, as well as peep-show booths that show clips from unreleased works by the artist. 

While this constantly unpredictable exhibition is vast and diverse in subject, tone, and form, there is one constant that ties them all together – John Waters’ unapologetic sense of humor and his fearless and uncensored depiction of our world. 

Indecent Exposure makes you laugh through its sheer absurdity, shock, and playful tone. John Waters is consistent in his goal to shock audiences yet keep his art interesting and light-hearted (for the most part). The exhibit   also makes you think and confront the parts of humanity you never thought could be put on display. The exhibition runs at the Baltimore Museum of Art now through January 6, 2019. Student tickets are $10, and the price of admission is definitely worth this amazing exhibit.

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