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Provocateur Waters charms the O.C.

October 31, 2005|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

The promised porn star was absent, but the actor formerly known as Pee-wee turned up, as did the actress forever known as Mink Stole, as did dozens of the Orange County Museum of Art's most prosperous patrons. And they all crowded in close to hear a few words from the artist of the hour, a slim fellow with a plaid suit and a pencil-thin mustache.

"This is called 'Puke in the Cinema,' " said the artist. Proudly, if not downright perversely, he stood beside a series of grainy, jittery photos showing actors and actresses in the throes of nausea.

John Waters was in his element, and so, it seemed at this Friday night show-opening banquet in Newport Beach, was his nodding and giggling audience.

"Very unique," whispered one partygoer to her friend.

"Very much unique," whispered the friend back. Then they moved on to a larger work featuring 12 orifices and a dirty foot. Nearby, a distinguished white-haired man threw his head back in laughter at the site of a mutant baby.

The exhibition is called "Change of Life." Though it features three ragged, early and unreleased Waters films -- all made before he turned 22 -- the main elements are still photos of television screens showing scenes from old movies. These, in Waters' words, are "movie stills that no one would ever release," and he mixes and matches them to form new narratives or simply deconstruct the art and business of movie-making. Along with the vomit collection, the thematically linked images include actors shooting heroin, actors sitting on toilets, actors portraying Jesus on the cross and actresses giving birth. Other items in the show offer glimpses of the artist's own glamorous yet Baltimore-based lifestyle: There are several cardboard-cutout displays of the crowded bookshelves in his Baltimore home, along with a collection of the index cards that Waters has used for years to log each day's tasks in tiny, cramped handwriting.

"If you look closely," Waters confided, "you'll see movie stars' phone numbers and people I've slept with."

Maybe it seems a little odd at first blush, the idea of John Waters, avatar of all bad taste, engaging in a full-frontal cultural embrace with the best and brightest of Orange County. But maybe, as the artist and his admirers are quick to say, that just means the rest of us haven't been paying close enough attention.

Since Waters emerged more than 30 years ago as the profoundly independent filmmaker behind such trash-and-filth-based cult classics as "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble," he's long been edging his way toward the pop-culture mainstream through films like "Polyester" and "Hairspray" (which is now a Broadway musical as well). Meanwhile, the pop-cultural appetites of Orange County and the rest of America have been sidling, some would say sinking, toward Waters territory. Wesleyan University now maintains a John Waters archive. These days, arrayed at the museum in the shadow of spotless, affluent Fashion Island, his fascinations with transvestites and blood and guts and orifices and cheesy old movies may still prompt titters, but nobody calls the cops.

"This isn't Idaho," said Waters, 59, between embraces from well-wishers and bites of seared tuna and black pasta.

"It's a sign of how the times have caught up to his sensibility," said film composer Peter Golub, a friend of Waters.

Still, said Timothy W. Weiss, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, half-joking, "I would be very disappointed if we didn't get some type of complaint."

In fact, Waters and his gleefully transgressive works have been turning up in galleries and museums for more than a decade. Since the early 1990s, Waters, a longtime follower of the New York art scene, has been moonlighting from his movie-making to create works of photography, assemblages and sculptures. (Waters served as a trustee on the Baltimore Museum of Art's board for most of the 1990s, including a stint on the acquisitions committee.) The current show, which runs through Jan. 15, has already been seen at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.

Unlike those previous stops, the Orange County show will offer optional iPod narration by Waters, whose Friday-night walk-though for museum trustees threatened to become a full-blown stand-up routine.

"Where I live in Baltimore, everyone still has a Farrah Fawcett hairdo," he said.

"Every time Manson comes to his parole hearing, he seems to have a new stylist," he said.

"There's no such thing as a bad movie. If you hate the movie, just look at the lamps," he said.

After the walk-through, museum trustee Barbara Klein beamed like a satisfied investor. "I find it accessible," she said, "and I wasn't sure I would feel that way."

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