Holy Waters

John Waters: Indecent Exposure BY Kristen Hileman. edited by Jonathan D. Katz, Robert Storr, Wolfgang Tillmans. University of California Press. Hardcover, 232 pages. $50.

Like Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It, John Waters arrives with ample mystique preceding him. His inflammatory post-Warhol oeuvre now elicits de rigueur hosannas, and it endures precisely because it boldly went beneath—and beyond—anywhere Pop, camp, conceptual art, or Valley of the Dolls had gone before. Waters synthesized gloriously impure conceptual trash: Sins of the Fleshapoids, dreamy Jean Genet, sassy Paul Lynde, the Chelsea Girls, et al.

The sleazeballsiness of Pink Flamingos (1972) has assumed canonical stature, and Waters’s comrade-in-harm Divine has achieved the posthumous, atomic-bombshell cachet of an underground Elizabeth Taylor. A natural defiler and sharp hustler, Waters parlayed the Baltimore-is-less nihilism of Pink Flamingos, along with Multiple Maniacs (1970), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977), into a lively, kind-of-successful Hollywood directing career—a Frank Tashlin for the era of the Meese Commission and O. J. Simpson. Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) are dialectical offshoots of his early dumpster dives, trading terrorism for democraticantisocial representation.

That film career in abeyance, he’s snugly adopted the role of an endearing, avuncular Mister Rogers figure, mock-explaining bee-stung anal “blossoms” on the lecture and talk show circuit. So it is that we come to John Waters: Indecent Exposure (University of California Press, $50), the catalogue for an exhibition at (where else?) the Baltimore Museum of Art. Its jacket is a plain brown wrapper with his Plasticine lips and pencil mustache leering through a cut-out slat, repositioning our beloved hustler as a serious gallery artist. Or at least putting elevator shoes on a tricked-out Don Knotts cosplayer whose art-pranks deploy humor laced with strychnine and pathos. Nothing alien is inhuman to the guy. The intuitive, carny-barker aesthetic of his movies is translated, hit or miss, into photos and photomontages, sculptures, and assemblies—a shooting gallery of sitting ducks and filthy epiphanies.

Where Indecent Exposure misses the mark is in its pious packaging and on-thenose flogging of the overt. Waters tends to go all in for Jeff Koons–figurine combos of the sacred, the monstrous, and sacred monsters-a-go-go: Charles Manson, Michael Jackson, John and Jackie Kennedy, and Divine (of course). These kitschy-kook numbers would be a lot more trenchant outside the gallery or this high-gloss book, maybe offered on the shelves of Target or via Gwyneth’s Goop. Indeed, Indecent Exposure would make a solid prospectus for Waters to pitch his own low-down rival to Goop: Besides swanky souvenirs of spotless bad taste like Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot (photos draped in redvelvet curtains) or Shrimper (portrait of raw shrimp atop Yves Saint Laurent pumps), it could pimp out more holistic items “in the healing Waters spirit.” Picture Edie the Egg Lady vibrating vaginal eggs or celebrity-endorsed anal bleaching kits. Operators are standing by to take your order!

The catalogue essays suggest letters of recommendation written to, or by, an academic parole board, reassuring readers that the delinquent in question has been intellectually rehabilitated by his proximity to Andy Warhol, as well as his more tangential affinities with Richard Prince, Diane Arbus, and Cindy Sherman. Institutional phrases like “Fascinated by the troubling capacity of the most extreme personalities” or “shared tragedy, and the startling profundity with which it can be experienced through humor” place his sacrilege in trite shackles. Troubled—Waters? Shared tragedy, startling profundity? Yes, his mash-up of 9/11 with B-movie flying-saucer attacks is bleakly cheeky, but the most penetrating commentary here is a giant ruler branded, in block print, FELLINI’S 8 1/2. In 1968, the young Waters inserted a remake of (and homage to) the Zapruder film into Eat Your Makeup, with Divine as Jackie Kennedy. In 1995, he distilled it into the twenty-four frames of Zapruder: The book shrinks the photos to near illegibility, but there’s no denying the puckish nihilism of the gesture. It’s of a savage slapstick piece with his favorite New York Post headline, on the occasion of Ike Turner’s passing: IKE BEATS TINA TO DEATH.

Am I saying Indecent Exposure’s not worth having? No: It’s full of good jokes, features some nicely swiped imagery (one can never go wrong with Ann-Margret in Kitten with a Whip), and hasn’t completely drowned out the many-splendored Odorama scents of Divine. But its overall animating spirit isn’t Warhol so much as a queer National Lampoon: There are tabloid parodies, like his fake Brainiac magazine cover (complete with a high-cult Enquirer headline: RENATA ADLER GOES BERSERK!); showbiz homilies (the Loser Gift Basket of hideous swag); and artbiz-as-showbiz gags (the fabtastic Artistically Incorrect series). Indecent Exposure also has vacation hints (a Visit Marfa poster that brags, “The Jonestown of Minimalism”), grooming ads (Mr. Ray, the white hair-weave king of 1980s Baltimore), and many helpful artetiquette tips: Gay is Not Enough, Praying is Begging, “Have Sex in a Voting Booth.”

The hardest thing to capture about Waters is the way his milieu, his strange kind of wit, his repertory company, and even his advertising resonates in the cultural subconscious. As David O. Russell has attested, the little ad for midnight showings of Pink Flamingos that ran for years in the Village Voice burned itself into your imagination. Mortifying the insufferable and celebrating the outcast has ever been Waters’s goal. A dump truck full of Judith Butler quotes won’t tell you as much about Waters’s vision as the mere idea of his casting Patty Hearst and Traci Lords as mother and daughter in Cry-Baby: On set, Hearst the former SLA hostage comforted Lords the ex–underage porn star, pariah to pariah, his Pietà de résistance. Only in John Waters’s America.

Howard Hampton is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.