Michael Jordan Playing Baseball

"John Waters: Change of Life" pales next to his true art

John Waters, 5x7 Chromogenic PrintEveryone -- but everyone -- will be at the Orange County Museum of Art this weekend for the opening of "John Waters: Change of Life." But what they see there, besides each other, won't be much.

While not everyone in the world cares for shit eating and talking assholes, only the truly square and frighteningly uptight wouldn't be able to look beyond the macabre and the obscene in Waters' films -- not to mention the howlingly bad production values -- to see the really touching (sometimes almost sappy) humanism that's not even under the surface. It's smeared right atop the whole thing.

But that's not what John Waters gives us here.

What Waters gives us is his love of film and story by -- echoing Richard Prince, who took photos of other people's photos and appropriated them as his own -- taking still photos off his television and then arranging them into films of 10 or fewer frames. He supplements them with kitsch and camp, death toys and magazine covers with Farrah Fawcett on them. Sometimes his summary of a film is just the beginning title; other times they're collections of snaps from different movies, commenting on each other. Edith Tells Off Katharine Hepburnshows Hepburn, whom Waters detested, looking lovely, her eyes tilted up to the heavens, her teeth the teeth of a superhuman. Above her is Edith Massey, blond and with cleavage like an ass, leering at the camera and flipping it off. Other divas are represented thoroughly, from Jayne Mansfield to Dorothy Malone, Lana Turner and Ann-Margret. There's a series of just Grace Kelly's elbows. As one would expect, the screen goddesses who were a little bit tacky or uncouth or out-of-control come off much better than the icy, perfect ones -- John Waters has never liked a winner. Mansfield, for instance, comes across just divine. Ann-Margret, in her series of five, looks like she's in the middle of a lay. The glare in her eyes is a bit The Bad Seed -- and, as you'd imagine in a Waters work, that's a very sympathetic view. Julia Roberts? Not as sympathetic, since her horsy grin is paired with a grinning skull-monster from the horror film Julia. Ooh! Not nice!

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films screening at OCMA Waters' love of gore and serial killers and photos of plastic surgery procedures and disgusting fat people and assholes comes together for a fabulous world-view, one that's more Christ-y than a lot of the temple moneychangers around these parts. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Julia Roberts, not so much.

Most of the works in "Change of Life" are enjoyable or disgusting or both. (Only Hit Your Mark, a collection of photos of tape lines on the ground of his movie sets, is pretty much useless, although my mom would like it; she's got just a hideous tape-geometricism that I'm pretty sure was the back side of the matting in a frame when she and my dad decided it was art.) But the exhibit pales beside Waters' true art. This collection, organized by the New Museum in New York, seems more like a bored guy looking for something to do with his nights, who didn't care to take up knitting or jigsaw puzzles. It's Michael Jordan playing baseball -- still better than most people, but do you care? I haven't seen Exene's collages showing up in LA and so I'm probably talking out of my ass here (like John Waters invented), but my perception is that if she weren't Exene, we wouldn't be looking. If these film stills weren't by John Waters, we still might -- there's something pleasing in the lo-fi fuzz of the camera's lens, of the trip back in time before digital, and there's more than a little pleasing about Waters' beloved circle of losers -- but there wouldn't be one-twentieth of us at the opening party.


"JOHN WATERS: CHANGE OF LIFE" AT THE ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122. OPEN TUES.-SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M.; THURS., 11 A.M.-8 P.M. THROUGH JAN. 15. OPENING RECEPTION WITH COCKTAILS, HAIR AND MAKEUP STATIONS, SOUVENIR PORTRAITS AND MORE, SAT., 8 P.M.-MIDNIGHT. $10 ADVANCE; $12 AT THE DOOR; FREE FOR MEMBERS; JOHN WATERS BOOK SIGNING, SUN., 2 P.M. FREE WITH ADMISSION ($8-$10).

 
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