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Waters' stills do run deep

The creator of 'Hairspray' and 'Pink Flamingos' keeps the irony but deepens the themes in a show of his celebrity-tinged photographic work.

November 06, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

JOHN WATERS is most widely known as a moviemaker. His films exploit the extreme, mannered conventions of modern tabloid culture to address otherwise earnest issues of social consciousness -- chief among them the tendency to fabricate reasons to discriminate against one's fellow human beings. He's been at it more than 30 years, from 1972's "Pink Flamingos," his classic "exercise in poor taste," to 2004's "A Dirty Shame," billed as "threatening the very limits of common decency."

Less well known is that Waters also makes art. A survey of his work with photographs, reconstituted from a 2004 exhibition in New York, is now at the Orange County Museum of Art. As writer-director-actor for many of his films -- a medium that more commonly demands collaboration -- it is perhaps only a small leap to the total control an artist typically exerts in the studio.

Usually Waters appropriates images that have appeared in mass media, sometimes even shooting off the TV screen. Then he reassembles them, often in sequential strips, in ways their makers never dreamed.

The 79 works emerge as Conceptual Pop -- the illegitimate love child of John Baldessari and Andy Warhol. Waters began to make art in 1992, after the triumph of Cindy Sherman and other artists who erased all established distinctions between photography and art. Formally Waters' work is more tame than adventurous, but he's the rare entertainment celebrity who also manages to make art worth looking at.

Waters' working method crosses film editing with collage. He refers to the resulting montages as "little movies," and generally they elaborate on themes familiar to his films. They also reveal a downright obsessive intimacy with all things cinematic.

The first time I saw the infamous "Pink Flamingos" was at an underground film festival in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1974. The movie is a gross-out, but the narrative is as down-home and all-American as Appalachian tales of the Hatfields and McCoys.

It chronicles a family feud -- self-satisfied rednecks whose cherished status as "the filthiest people alive" is aggressively challenged by a couple of social-climbing swingers. The vile contest between them escalates, until finally a tiny poodle cements the winner's claim. I wouldn't exactly say this trash-a-thon changed my life, but certainly it burned a hole in my brain.

At 27, Harris Glen Milstead, the obese transvestite known as Divine, portrayed yahoo heroine Babs Johnson as an astounding cartoon. A cascading pile of orange-blond hair rose above scimitar eyebrows, an acre of eye shadow and edge-defying red lipstick. Such hair and makeup had not been seen on a human face since the 1950s, when the mischievous Clarabell Hornblow disrupted TV life in Doodyville for Howdy and Buffalo Bob.

For Babs, all that clown-inspired glory crowned several hundred pounds of righteous Milstead flesh, poured into a skin-tight, crimson evening gown. The scoop neckline and flared hem of layered tulle emphasized every one of Divine's voluptuous curves.

"Pink Flamingos" had all kinds of transgressions on its inventive mind. I had gone to see the movie (with six young women) at a moment when the feminist movement was in full swing. "Pink Flamingos" was made in 1972, the year the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress, and instinctively we knew that Divine's outrageous persona was not satirizing the so-called fairer sex, thus adding to their oppression.

Drag queens don't make fun of women, after all; they lampoon heterosexual men, standing at the pinnacle of the social power-pyramid. That's what Divine's insane, kiddie-clown-inspired exaggeration is about. The big hair, overheated makeup, cheesy clothing and bazooka body conspire in a frantic burlesque of established cues to the erotic desire of straight males.

And thus has the mainstream pop culture world turned, from Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield during Waters' childhood -- he was born in 1946 and counts a 1953 visit to a studio broadcast of "The Howdy Doody Show" as a formative event -- to Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson as he approaches 60 today.

In his more placid art, Waters likewise teases out the semiotic undercurrent of the loud, glossy and repetitive din of modern tabloid culture. "Grace Kelly's Elbows," for example, is a weird sequence of eight film stills focused on the only part of Kelly's body that never got sexualized.

Waters can also be wonderfully manipulative. Several of his long, narrow montages are oddly framed, so that when they reach the room's corner they turn a 90-degree angle. Looking at these ruminations on assorted modern tragedy and taboo, you find yourself unwittingly standing in the corner -- shameful site of punishment for naughty 9-year-olds.

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