whitehot | June 2009, John Waters @ Gagosian
John Waters: Rear Projection at Gagosian Gallery
456 North Camden Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
April 11 through May 23, 2009
I first saw John Waters’ fine artwork at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco in 2002. The show, entitled Straight to Video, included a number of sequential film stills and twisted narratives. One, Secret Movie, was a 4 x 6 inch print situated on the surface of a very tall, very slim pedestal; the pedestal was so tall, in fact, that one couldn’t see the print. Another, Buckle Up, was a series of film stills framed in sequence so that the images led, left to right, towards a car crash; the final image – of the moment of impact itself – was still linked to the preceding images, but was hung on the adjacent wall, as though the photograph itself had hit the wall. (Imagine an L-shaped frame.)
These two pieces – maybe one-liners – felt like really light, humorous gestures that seemed to push convention just hard enough to send photographs into sculptural space, but not hard enough to feel like Waters was driving home some conceptual point.
At Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, seven years later, he does it again. This is a playful show that manages to elide core art world conventions while ostensibly toying mainly with cinema and pop culture. Four sculptures are set off the floor by low, white pedestals. (It’s rumored that these pedestals reminded Waters of Macy’s.) The sculptures are fun, but fairly lightweight. The guy who made Chucky for the Child’s Play series apparently made Control, in which a puppet Tina Turner is suspended from strings manipulated by Ike. La Mer, Waters describes, is “an oversized jar of the expensive face cream I’m embarrassed to admit I use.” He goes on to deduce that “if the normal 2 ounce jar on the market now sells for $230.00, this sculpture would be filled with moisturizer worth $867,740.96.” A peculiar perspective on scale.
Thirty-one mischievous photographic prints are scattered over the gallery walls at varying heights. Two of the prints are remarkable for their formal clarity and for the part of the film business to which they refer. Shooting Script is an image of a grid of the cardboard backs of legal pads with all of the pages torn out, only a yellow paper strip remaining at the top of each pad. Stalker is an image of a grid of post-it notes with strange notations like, “To your vagina with love.” It turns out that fans in line at Waters’ book signings wrote these notes so that he could simply transcribe what they wanted written into their books without asking for spelling specifics. Both of these photographs reveal Waters’ relationship to writing and film while maintaining an aestheticized objectivity on the souvenirs of that relationship.
My favorite piece here is Backwards Day. One can see only the back of a long rectangular frame, with its various institutional marks: the Gagosian registration label and that of the framer, Waters’ signature along with the title and edition number of the piece, a hanging wire and hanging instructions. Though the piece is said to include five prints, only its collector will see them, and Waters has that collector in mind with this piece. He says, “Like in my film ‘Desperate Living’, one day a year everyone should have a ‘Backwards Day’ – eat your meals in reverse order or wear your clothes backwards. Even the collector can have a ‘Backwards Day’ when they hang this photograph backwards. Try it!” he suggests. “You’ll feel especially edgy.”
I like this piece more than images like Mamas (where Waters has juxtaposed Pam Greer and Aggie Gund, the President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art) because if it attacks contemporary art, it does so with original nerve. Like the legal pads in Shooting Script, the lack of information elegantly foregrounds what indeed is present. Like the little print on top of the pedestal in San Francisco, but maybe more efficiently, Backwards Day teases its supports – from its frame to its consumer – playing somewhat hard to get, but still hoping to be gotten.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief