FotoFest 2012
so divine

"I'm hardly Ansel Adams": The peculiar film art of John Waters fills in for his movie work

"I'm hardly Ansel Adams": The peculiar film art of John Waters fills in for his movie work

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John Waters Photo by Tyler Rudick
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John Waters, Pet, 2009, C-print, Edition 4/5 Courtesy of the artist and McClain Gallery
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John Waters, La Mer, 2009, Styrofoam, urethane, plaster and latex, Edition 5/5, signed and titled in ink: "La Mer" John Waters Courtesy of the artist and McClain Gallery
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John Waters, Neurotic, 2009, four C-prints, Edition 3/5 Courtesy of the artist and McClain Gallery
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John Waters, Plus, 1996, two C-prints, Edition 4/5 Courtesy of the artist and McClain Gallery
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John Waters, Bad Directors Chair, 2006, canvas, wood, steel and paint with leather bound script, Edition 1/5 signed, titled and numbered in ink (under footrest): "Bad Director’s Chair 1/5, J. Waters" Courtesy of the artist and McClain Gallery
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John Waters, Visit Marfa, 2003, offset print, Edition 40/100 Courtesy of the artist and McClain Gallery
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Movie fans and art fans alike poured into the McClain Gallery for the opening of Neurotic, the first exhibition in Texas dedicated to the artwork of cult film legend John Waters.

As the beloved filmmaker made his rounds through the show (which is part of the Fotofest Biennial), politely signing autographs and posing for pictures Thursday night, crowds made their way around Waters' 2009 large installation piece La Mer — a three-foot-tall styrofoam reproduction of the famous skin cream that winks to Warhol's Brillo boxes as much as it nods to the 20th-century cultural kitsch that gave rise to films like Pink Flamingos and Hairspray.

Aside from Bad Director's Chair (on the back of the canvas chair, "hack" has been stenciled where one might expect the word "director") and an oversized bath rack complete with towel, the bulk of the show centers around Waters' photographic cut-ups and collages from the past two decades.

"I used to come here a lot to promote my movies, but I haven't been in Houston for a long time," Waters said. "It's great to be back with an  art show."

"I’m hardly Ansel Adams," Waters told CultureMap contributor Joe Leydon in a recent interview. "I take pictures of other people’s movies and re-edit them in storyboard format to form a movie that might be completely different than what any of the people who made the original movies had in mind."

 In 2009's Product Placement, common grocery store items have made their way into some of the most memorable moments of film history. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kiss on the beach in the famous scene in From Here to Eternity as a bottle of Coke washes ashore in the waves. Stills from The Ten Commandments and Aguirre, the Wrath of God feature Tilex and Hershey's Kisses

Waters said recently that he worries viewers don't retain moving pictures as well as they remember film stills they've seen in books again and again. With his artworks, he can make a counter attack.

He noted that, for him, the process of making art is as rooted in acts of writing and editing as his films . . . he just hunts down the images to tell his stories rather than employing actors and building props. 

"I think up each of these pieces and then I have to go find the images that make a new narrative which many times is the opposite of or has nothing to do with what the director really began with," he said.

With his art, Waters seems to have allowed himself to veer into more thought-provoking, conceptual terrain than one might typically find in his film work.

The haunting 9/11 evokes a strong emotional response, particularly among light-hearted pieces l ike Melissa, which shows a screen bearing the words "starring Melissa Rivers" over a cloud.

"These were actually two movies shown on the planes involved in the World Trade Center attacks," McClain assistant director Erin Siudzinski said of a 9/11 piece that juxtaposes two film title screens — one for A Knight's Tale and another for Dr. Doolittle 2.

Though still infused with that cheeky John Waters-y humor, the haunting 9/11 evokes a surprisingly strong emotional response, particularly among relatively light-hearted pieces like Melissa, which shows a grainy screen shot bearing the words "starring Melissa Rivers" over a cloud.

"I used to come here a lot to promote my movies, but I haven't been in Houston for a long time," Waters said. "It's great to be back with an art show and the trip's been wonderful so far."

He said he spend much of Wednesday visiting the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Joel Shapiro installation at Rice and Richard Serra's exhibit at the Menil.CultureMap caught Waters' ear for a moment at Thursday's busy event to hear about his week in Houston, which also included a one-man performance at DiverseWorks on Wednesday.

After leaving town this weekend, Waters said he would return to a laundry list of creative activity.

"I have another art show coming up and I'm writing another book. Then there's the spoken word thing as well," he laughed. "Just a million things these days."