Reporting Eric Henderson
I can’t pretend to be even remotely objective when I say “Absentee Landlord,” John Waters’ new exhibit at the Walker Art Center, is a must see.
Waters is easily one of my five favorite movie directors. From his legendary cult classics like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble all the way through his mainstream satires Hairspray and Serial Mom, Waters’ films have always paid tribute to the spirit of life’s, ahem, “s***-starters.”
Now, he’s doing the same for the art world, and he’s doing it right here in the Twin Cities.
For “Absentee Landlord,” the WAC gave Waters free reign to choose his favorite pieces from their extensive collection. Waters said he approached the challenge like any dutiful slumlord.
“Aren’t all curators landlords who allow fine art to live together in a sublet for a while and be uneasy roommates?” Waters asks in the program notes. “Or is it closer to a dictatorship where I can recommend eviction by deaccession if they talk back, balk at my orders or fail to entice enough public comment?”
If you’re wondering what qualifies a movie director to serve as an arbiter of visual art, don’t. Waters is a blue renaissance man, and he consistently has a knack for looking at the world from the most abstruse angle possible. His eye is capable of changing the way you see just about everything.
Waters said he intended to create intriguing juxtapositions, as though setting up works of art to either brawl or have sex.
“Who should room together in the world of contemporary art? Can a Russ Meyer photograph go to sleep in the same gallery as a Yves Klein blue chip masterpiece?”
Waters presented a media preview of the exhibit Friday morning in anticipation of Friday evening’s live performance of his monologue “This Filthy World.” You can see some clips from that preview above, but below are a few more notes I jotted down. The man is an endless fountain of wonky perceptions — for lack of a more appropriate word, he’s the best sort of critic.
• Waters said there are pieces in the exhibit that, at first, inspired hatred in him, not admiration. But then he commented on another curator who, when asked how to go about amassing impressive art collections, famously declared, “I always bought what I didn’t like.”
• He said he always finds it amusing when people try to denigrate a piece of art by sniping, “My kid could do that.” His reply, “But he didn’t, stupid!”
• There are a lot of “meta” pieces in this exhibit. Among them a “faux” video room, Waters’ own way of mocking the fact that all contemporary art exhibits apparently feel they have to have a video presentation. (Compounding the joke is the fact that “Absentee Landlord” actually does have a real video room as well, which shows Superflex’s “Flooded McDonalds.”) However, nothing is quite so wryly self-effacing as the piece entirely comprised of the financial paperwork that went into the making of the exhibit.
• One of the most potentially controversial of Waters’ pieces is one that checkerboards images from Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and the 9/11 planes crashing into the World Trade Center. It caused at least one of the gathered media reps to ask, “Where is the line?”
• It may surprise some to hear Waters claim that he doesn’t consider anything in the exhibit to be campy, that there are no “so bad it’s good” pieces here. Waters has long advocated stealing back the concept of “bad” from “good,” and I remember on his commentary track for the camp masterpiece Mommie Dearest, he corrected that he considered the denigrated movie “so good it’s good!”
• Art bites back in one instance. Waters created a portrait that will squirt you with water if you get too close, his wicked spin on museums’ uptight habit of never letting people get within spitting distance of the pieces they’re there to see.
• Where is the source of Waters’ crooked aesthetic? Apparently it’s a $1 Muro postcard he bought from a museum as a 10-year-old boy. The invariably disgusted reaction it earned from all his friends convinced him there was power in the grotesque.
• Finally, I had a minor Proustian moment when I saw that one of the pieces that Waters included was Claes Oldenburg’s “Shoestring Potatoes Spilling from a Bag.” Much like the Muro was to him, those oversized French fries were one of the earliest examples of art I can remember from my childhood.
• The exhibit runs through next March.