John Waters: Change of Life
February 8 – April 15 2004
Over four decades, the controversial and celebrated film director John Waters-once crowned “The Pope of Trash” by William Burroughs and more recently hailed as the original voice behind Broadway’s smash-hit musical Hairspray-has tested the boundaries that separate the margins of culture from the mainstream. Always eager to raise the issues that polite society works so hard to suppress-such as race, religion, sex, and class-Waters aims to liberate us from the binds of social norms and restrictions. To that end, he has created provocative, hilarious, and important films, and in a more recent change of life, has added photography to his repertoire. Waters did not set out to reinvent himself as a gallery artist, but by the early 1990s he was ready for something new. He was faced with growing international success, the death in 1988 of his muse Divine (the riveting cross-dresser and star of many of his films), and the delays and compromises that came with industry financing of his bigger-budgeted projects.
Given the nerve-wracking, provisional nature of a filmmaker’s life, and Waters’s perpetual state of intellectual and creative overdrive, it’s not surprising that he would gravitate toward shorter-term, smaller-scaled projects that he could keep under his own control. Waters’s first foray into photography was in response to a request for a specific film still from his early feature Multiple Maniacs, 1970. Though Waters could vividly remember “Divine’s face in the one moment between rape and miraculous intervention where he lived up to the spiritual side of his name,” there was no photograph of it. So Waters decided to make one himself. Planted in front of a television set with a 35mm camera in hand, he scrutinized a videotape of the film. “I took hundreds of shots off the TV monitor,” Waters says, “blundering my way into photography the same way I blundered into films.” The result was his first “serious” artwork, Divine in Ecstasy, 1992.
The process so intrigued Waters that he has continued to shoot stills from videotapes of his own as well as others’ movies, revisiting scenes from over-the-top melodramas, art-house failures, and cult and popular classics. From the piles of drugstore-processed prints that he accumulates, Waters selects the ones he likes best and creates new photographic sequences with them, distilling and in some cases reworking his most memorable and profound film experiences. Editing is what Waters does, and what the work is about. He transforms his source materials into new fictions that are ultimately more critical, useful, and entertaining for him than the original films themselves. Waters occasionally presents single images or diptychs, for example Scene Missing, 2000, or Gossip, 1995. But his primary interest is in making the sequential, unconventional narratives he calls his “little movies”: collages of snapshot-sized color prints that are most often arranged side-by-side like neat, horizontal filmstrips. The works are hybrids, art objects that exist somewhere along the spectrum that extends between still photography and motion pictures.
According to Waters, now that he makes art, he watches movies both as a film director and as an art police officer, looking for images and details he can collate and transform through their re-purposing. “I’m trying,” he says, “to get you to see the reverse beauty of some of these movies that are generally thought of in a negative way.” “By defacing, removing and severely editing the failed moments of my own work and the under-praised work of others, maybe we can look at films that were initially dismissed or despised in a more optimistic way.” Images that are ungraspable when projected at cinematic speed support a different level of scrutiny, and appreciation, once Waters transforms them. Looking at these works, we are freed from the constraints of our fleeting encounters with filmic images; we can read the content of the images Waters has extracted at our own pace, and on multiple levels. In that sense, art-making is not so much a break from the movies for Waters as it is a way to look more deeply into what makes movies powerful. He questions how photographic and filmic narratives are presented and makes us more aware of what it is in images that we respond to.
Taken together, the works in this exhibition reflect the various ways in which motion pictures and still images overlap, diverge, and grab hold of our imagination. Waters’s relationship to photography, like his relationship to mainstream cinema, is defined largely by his outsider status and oblique, but incisive point of view. While many artists strain to attract attention with mammoth photographic prints, Waters works on a small scale, having already seen what the images in his imagination look like projected large. He rejects conventional values of “good” photography; there is no fussing over equipment, technique, lighting, or framing. Waters’s prints are serviceable. They’re also grainy, pixilated, and degraded, having already gone through prior rounds of photographic translation-from film to video, from television to snapshot. And yet, there’s an odd beauty about the work. Individual frames-photographed from videotapes that radically condense, crop, and digitize images from wide-screen to fit the squarish format of TV screens-can have an intimate and jewel-like quality about them.
In part, Waters’s photographic work is effective and engaging because of its modesty. It refuses to seduce, work overtime, or be precociously hip. It reflects and furthers ideas that have fascinated and preoccupied Waters since he made his earliest films , namely, celebrity, the mass media, voyeurism, religious fanaticism, economic inequities, bodily functions, evil, race relations, family dysfunction, expressions of sexual preference, criminality, and both major and minor lapses in taste. The work is engaging and successful because it is neither doctrinaire nor mean-spirited. Drawing upon techniques of montage, sequential photography, and appropriation, Waters has developed a personal format well suited to his brand of wit, comedy, and commentary. Comic delivery demands an exquisite sense of timing, and the success of Waters’s “little movies” hinges on their ability to splice together disparate, borrowed images to make incisive points, play on verbal puns, or clear a path to a visual punch line. Waters knows that comedy is serious, that making fun of what is awful about the world helps to make life more tolerable. He also knows that humor is a useful tool when it’s used to demystify the process of making and looking at art. More important, he understands how both art and humor remind us of our shared humanity. To that end, Waters pays homage to narrative genres that best target and exploit our vulnerability: soap operas, horror movies, crime stories, and credulity-straining lurid tabloid tales. For him, and for the rest of us, the real fun begins once we face up to our foibles and step outside our role as passive audience members.
In all his work, Waters presents a remarkably consistent world view and the willingness to imagine what gets unleashed when repressive personal, social, and cultural strictures are lifted. In the photographic and sculptural work, and the early films presented in this exhibition, Waters joyfully exposes cultural contradictions, relentlessly questions ingrained social hierarchies, and cheers us all on toward nonconformity, liberation, and empowerment. He even points out the way: “Erase the original auteurs from your faded, scratched, poorly scanned video collection by "writing” with photography. Pretend you’re a renegade head of a Hollywood studio with damaged dreams and edit someone else’s movie with a reckless disregard for the mainstream. Isolate the out-of-context story points and celebrate the terror of juxtaposition. Mix innocent images of beauty and horror to demystify stars’ highly controlled self-images…. Celebrate your own inflated, self-important movie taste by glorifying movies that were not even remembered for being bad, much less good. Worship patterns of abuse so strong that they beg to be blown up, cut out and hung on the wall like taxidermy…. Watching a movie should be like hunting. Out of context, every image of the cinema is yours for a split second. Take it before they bury it. Then these pitiful new “movies” made up from the scraps of others won’t be anybody else’s but your own.“