John Waters, the Artful Dodger

New York Times
June 23, 2011

“I ALWAYS think of art as animate objects with their own little lives and personalities,” said John Waters, the filmmaker known for ignoring the boundaries of good taste and bad in movies like “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray.” “I’m curious about who can live with each other.”

Mr. Waters, also an actor, writer, artist and art collector, is now a museum curator as well. Invited by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to plumb its storerooms and make additions to and subtractions from an existing show of works from its collection, Mr. Waters — in his role as “Absentee Landlord,” as he named his installation, which opened this month — selected what he considered to be uneasy roommates. “I want to clean house, reward troublemakers and invite crashers,” he wrote in an introductory wall panel that raises unusual curatorial questions. Who’d be sloppier to live with than Mike Kelley? Who’d copy from Richard Prince, the infamous appropriator? Would Fischli/Weiss and Roman Signer fight over who’s more droll? More Swiss? And if all these artists had to live together, would Carl Andre, the austere Minimalist, ever lighten up?

“It really does feel like John’s standing there speaking to you,” said Betsy Carpenter, curator of the permanent collection at the Walker, of the highly idiosyncratic text. The curatorial staff had originally envisioned that Mr. Waters would do a kind of “intervention” to keep the collection galleries lively. But he became so swept up in the project that, with the Walker’s blessing, he almost completely overhauled the existing show. He brought in outside loans of artists he collects, including Lee Lozano, Paul Lee and Jess von der Ahe, as well as some of his own conceptual pieces for comic relief. And he tweaked the entire museumgoing experience with additional manipulations of the parking lot, cafe, admissions badges and audio tour.

“Right out of the gate he’s asking visitors not to walk through the show with a hyper-serious or intellectual mind-set that they might go into another show with,” Ms. Carpenter said. “The history of art is still being told through these objects, but there is this edge of irony and humor.”

At the start of the show a black-curtained doorway emitting muffled audio will have experienced museumgoers walking directly into a wall if they try to enter. Mr. Waters has planted his own Faux Video Room almost as a decoy next to an actual curtained video room screening surreal footage by Superflex, the Danish artists collective, of a waterlogged McDonald’s. “To see McDonald’s flooded slowly, there’s a kind of beauty in that destruction,” Mr. Waters said of the piece, which he borrowed from the group’s New York gallery. “You see it now in a completely different way. That’s what art is: a magic trick.”

Nearby roommates include Richard Prince’s rephotographed ads of model living rooms, which Mr. Waters finds “incredibly creepy”; a remnant of “hideous wall-to-wall carpeting” mounted and painted by Mike Kelley as a monument to Minimalism; and John Currin’s painting of a couple on a date, the woman with an elongated Mannerist-style neck and laughing manically. “That painting is everything the show is about,” Mr. Waters said during an interview in his New York apartment. “It’s making fun and loving art history. Is this beautiful or hideous? It’s both to me.”

While he hopes that people will like the show, Mr. Waters, who is 65, said he knows he’s choosing work that can be polarizing. He’s been hooked on the power of contemporary art to infuriate people ever since at the age of 8 in the Baltimore Museum gift shop he bought a Miró print that his friends pronounced disgusting and stupid.

In the Walker show he has included some sacred cows, like Willem de Kooning, as a reminder that they weren’t always accepted. “Who’s going to have the nerve to say anything bad about him now?” said Mr. Waters. “You have to keep him in there to remember that people did.” He has paired a depiction of a furious woman by de Kooning, the ultramasculine Abstract Expressionist, with Ms. von der Ahe’s portrayal of an effeminate Ludwig II painted with her own menstrual blood. “I liked her work even without knowing what she painted with,” Mr. Waters said. “When you find out, you’re a little bit taken aback, but good for her, good idea.”

Another room looks as if it contains a cast of characters out of a Waters film. Photographs include Cameron Jamie’s shots of women in bikinis wrestling; and personifications of sausages in meat-related environments by Fischli/Weiss, Mr. Waters’s favorite team of artists; and Karlheinz Weinberger’s big-haired rebel youth pictures from the early ’60s. “They’re from Switzerland?” Mr. Waters deadpanned, observing Weinberger’s subjects. “These people look like Baltimore.” He’s hung his own photograph of a flower, with a barrier line on the floor, which in museum code means don’t get too close. If viewers do cross the line, it triggers the flower to squirt them in the face with water like a clown with a gag lapel flower.

“I am serious about my appreciation for art, dead serious, but I find amusing certain things about the art world that I think should be addressed,” said Mr. Waters, whose own art is represented by the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York and who was one of five jurors this month at the international art exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Other treats planted around the museum include the John Waters Blue Plate Special, which can be ordered in the cafe — hungry visitors are served not food but a limited-edition photograph of meat gristle, sprouting potato eyes and the cutoff ends of vegetables — and an audio tour of the exhibition spoken by Mr. Waters in pig Latin. “I know people get really upset by impenetrable art-speak, and I wanted to comment on that.”

Mr. Waters compared his stint as guest curator to making his own mixtape and said it was of a piece with his other work. “Ever since I started collecting art in the late 1980s, it’s become another way I tell stories,” he said. “I make movies, but I couldn’t get a movie made right now with the economy, so I wrote a book,” he continued, referring to “Role Models,” his 2010 memoir. “In my book I wrote about art. I made the film ‘Pecker’ in 1998, which is about the contemporary art world — I think a loving picture of it. It’s all one career. I’m telling stories.”