The timing of John Waters’ new exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery is either fortuitous or plainly astute—I suspect the latter. “Beverly Hills John” is a carefully clever show that skewers art world conventions and popular culture, anchored by Waters’ distinctive line of humor. To call the new works outré or provocative would be too easy, particularly when the terms of shock value have changed since 1972, the year “Pink Flamingos” hit theaters.
The exhibition coincides with the launch of two fashion campaigns that shook up advertising in recent weeks: Joan Didion for Céline and Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein. At the show in Chelsea, Waters gets the last word. “Justin’s Had Work” puts forth a digitally-altered photograph of Bieber circa 2010 as though the singer has undergone a major plastic surgery procedure. Two other works accompany the piece, showing headshots of Lassie and Waters disfigured by cosmetic enhancements. They are not the harmonious touch-ups you would expect to see from New York’s star dermatologist, Dr. Fredric Brandt. As Waters explains, he drew inspiration from the measured deference to extreme beauty measures in places like Hollywood.
Joan Didion is not quite herself either. She appears on the cover of the fictional tabloid “Brainiac” in nothing but a bathing suit with a headline that reads, “Joan Didion hits 250 pounds!” She shares the cover with other lampooned writers and critics like W.H. Auden and Renata Adler. “Intellectuals don’t worry about ageing,” says Waters, revealing them as public figures who are spared the physical scrutiny of celebrity.
Throughout the exhibition Waters spurns the typical tide of conservatism that accompanies growing old. As evinced by “Bill’s Stroller,” even outsiders are vulnerable to social mores. The baby stroller is covered with gay sex club ephemera and includes a leather S&M harness fastening. One imagines a couple ambling through a neighborhood where gay sex clubs used to stand, with the stroller and child in tow, as a kind of generational purge. The mainstreaming and fragmentation of the gay community comes under scrutiny in “Separate But Equal,” where Waters modifies a civil rights era photograph of a segregated drinking fountain, changing the signs to read “Gay Married” and “Gay Single.” Of course, the ultimate moral placation comes in the form of the “Kiddie Flamingos” video, which features a G-Rated table read of his famous cult film replete with child actors.
“Beverly Hills John” also brings to light the iconoclasts of C and D-list stardom. Waters is fascinated by the eccentric heroes of American film and late-night television–they are his beloved Kardashians. A standard part of his practice involves using a film camera to snap stills on his TV in Baltimore, cropping the prints into new works. Passing through the gallery, you get the sense Waters holds his subjects close. Ultimately, the configuration of the “Library Science” series, which positions the cover of literary classics next to their pornographic knockoffs, makes his intentions clear. It’s through parody that we fully appreciate the original.
“Beverly Hills John” remains on view through February 14, 2015 at Marianne Boesky Gallery