"John Waters: Change of Life" at the New Museum of Contemporary Art
7 February – 2 May 2004
In John Waters’s 1998 film Pecker, a young photographer named Pecker from Waters’s hometown Baltimore makes good by wowing the New York artworld. Not to be outdone by his own fiction, six years later, Waters has mounted "Change of Life," a solo exhibition at the New Museum. But while Pecker’s success is meteoric, Waters’s is still in progress. Instances of near misses and incomplete explorations result in a show that is both charming in its amateurishness and maddening in its unfulfilled promise.
In three viewing rooms around the perimeter of the main gallery, Waters’s earliest films are on continuous loops. While certainly interesting, these are less notable for their technical achievement or tightly woven plot lines (Eat Your Makeup, 1967, involves three models who are forced to eat their makeup and model themselves to death) than for their status as early works of a subsequently successful filmmaker. Indeed, their respective wall labels acknowledge this, if only implicitly. Each concludes with a useless nugget of trivia. Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, 1964, we learn, “was filmed on stock that had been stolen by Mona Montgomery [one of the stars], who worked in a camera shop.” And the split-screen Roman Candles, 1966, we again not-so-crucially read, “was the first film produced under the name Dreamland Studios and… premiered at a local Episcopal church.”
To be sure, Waters has a self-acknowledged disinterest in technical and formal issues. As he irreverently and hilariously explained in his 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, he left NYU after discovering to his dismay that “we’d have to watch the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin until it came out of our ears.” Perhaps in recognition of this disinterest, a second component of the show focuses on Waters’ sources of inspiration. Near the entrance, a to-scale installation by Vince Peranio, Waters’s main production designer since 1970, reproduces in relief three walls of Waters’ library. Configured in a U-shape so the viewer can step “inside,” these are accompanied by binders listing Waters’s books, organized into idiosyncratic, diverse categories like “Extreme Catholicism,” “True Crime,” and “Warhol.” Scanning a personal library is not unlike glancing over diary entries, and that Waters is a public figure does not diminish, and indeed perhaps heightens, the sense of illicit intimacy. Peranio’s library display is one of "Change of Life"’s high points.
As apposite as focusing on behind-the-scenes trivia about process is, as insightful as excavating what the reference material for creative production may be, rarely can either substantiate an exhibition. Neither, unfortunately, does "Change of Life"’s third and central component, a series of 64 photographic works that Waters calls “little movies.” Mostly consisting 2 to 13 horizontally-oriented standard (3.5 x 5 or 5 x 7 inch) prints lined up side to side in a continuous, long row, these are sequences of related images that Waters has culled from his own and others’ movies by taking photographs of them off a television monitor. For instance, the 11 grainy images in The Hot Seat, 2001, feature people in electric chairs, while the 9 in Toilet Training, 2000, those of actors on toilets. Providing a forum for that favorite game of art audiences, source guessing (they range from the obscure to the popular), these works nonetheless lack the polemical wit of Richard Prince’s pop-cultural appropriations or the systematic exhaustiveness of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s recent catalogues of television shots.
The photographic works, rather, much like the exhibition as a whole, allow a unique glimpse into the unique world of a unique filmmaker. In this sense, "Change of Life" recalls Pecker in another way. The show that Pecker is offered is to be titled "A Peek at Pecker," and this one could be titled "A Peek at John Waters." And that, at least for fans of Waters’s films, might be reward enough.