An Interview with John Waters at the Baltimore Museum of Art by Cara Ober with photos by Jill Fannon
“I think heterosexuals can be great artists, but they make lousy florists,” says John Waters at the Baltimore Museum of Art where his new retrospective, Indecent Exposure, is now on display. He is referring to one work in particular, “Hetero Flower Shop,” 2009, a grid of eight of the lamest floral arrangements imaginable on pastel backgrounds, a winning visual indictment of hetero-normative taste.
His voice sounds like snakeskin leather cushioned with a Baltimore towny twang. This charming lilt renders him approachable and allows his native city to continue to claim him, despite a fame that is global. At 72, Waters is the consummate performer, artist, and celebrity he established in the 70s with edgy films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble that still have the power to delight and make us uncomfortable watching in the company of our parents.
Walking around the gallery with him is entertaining in itself, of course; he speaks in rapid fire standup mode, sharing caustic and self-depreciating anecdotes without missing a beat.
Encompassing most of the BMA’s Thalheimer galleries, Waters’ retrospective mirrors the fragmented, diverse, weird, and, most of all, humorous themes that have made him an internationally known filmmaker, artist, and author. Not surprisingly, Indecent Exposure is an enthusiastic and over-crowded analysis of the history of pop culture through cinematic representation.
It offers a distinctly Waters-esqe aesthetic and campy humor, with hundreds of images collaged from myriad film stills, as well as photography, sculpture, sound work, video, and a flower photo that will squirt water if you come too close. One repeated technique that makes sense, given Waters’ background in storyboards and screenplays, is a frame-by-frame comic book approach, where disparate images are harvested from a wide variety of movies, and recombined in linear and gridded narrative compositions.
We sat down at the museum for a quick Q&A, just before his show opens to the public on Sunday, October 7, 2018.
I don’t know who else is interviewing you today, but did anyone else bring you a beautiful art magazine?
No. Thank you. I thought I had a subscription! I liked it before, the issue I was in. When does it come out? Is it quarterly?
No. It’s biannual. It’s every spring and fall.
I missed the last one. What happened to all the galleries on Franklin Street?
Some of them are still there. I have heard that the landlord has been making changes. There’s a 7/11 across the street now, so the area is different. Just curious – Who are you wearing today?
Issey Miyake. Comme des Garçon. [Takes off his shoe and checks inside] The shoes are Comme also. You know, when they asked Jackie Kennedy whose dress she was wearing, she said IT’S MINE. I like that idea. [laughter]
I want to be Jackie O, too.
Everyone wants to be Jackie O. Liz Taylor is pretty good too. You know, I was in her house once. I looked in her medicine cabinet but it was just all her products.
That is frightening! I would be afraid to look in there. It would be quite a photo.
Catherine Opie just did it. She just did a book and huge exhibition, the entire thing is all of the insides of Liz Taylor’s house.
No, she did it. It’s already been done. These art ideas, you have to think of them fast. [Looking down] We have matching shoes! Red shoes… It’s a good shot.
I know. Do you want to photograph these shoes?
Yeah. Wait. You found those shoes in the trash? Dumpster diving?
I wish. No. These shoes are actually saving the world! They are made from recycled plastic bottles that are turned into thread and somehow felted or knitted together.
Many felts had to die… Hi Jill! [He is addressing Jill Fannon, a photographer and his former art assistant]. She did all this stuff. [gesturing around at the artwork] She did “Kiddie Flamingos.”
Jill shot an amazing photo essay on wearable fiber art for our next print issue. She is a genius. We are releasing on November 15.
I might be in London that week. Jill will let me know though. I wanted to come to the last one.
I was going to ask you about film vs. still image?
Nowadays feature length films are shown cinematically in museums in black box theaters. There’s not necessarily popcorn but… Why is there a division between film and image as object in this retrospective?
“Kiddie Flamingos,” which is installed in there in a black box theater, is not a movie. It’s art. It’s video. It should be on a loop in a museum where you can see it at any time, watching some of it, all of it, as much as you want. A little bit goes a long way, but it’s not a movie.
So you wouldn’t want to screen Pink Flamingos in a museum? Do you think it doesn’t belong there? Why are there no feature films in this retrospective?
Oh sure, I’d love to – but not in the middle of an exhibition. What I have here is a video piece, in the context of other visual art work. It’s certainly not listed as part of my film career. It’s an art piece, editioned and it makes sense with the photos. Same way a sign is or photograph is…
But all these photos are about film…
Film or the art business. Or childhood. Or religion. Or sex…
All art is about those things. And while I get that these pieces are still images and objects – not movies – there are so many similarities between your artwork and your films. I guess what I am curious about are the divisions, as you see them, whether mental or aesthetic, between film and art object? To me it seems arbitrary.
I don’t think them up in the same place. I have an art studio where make the art. I have a writing studio where I write the films. They are different worlds I live in. Different influences. I really don’t think of them in the same way at all.
So it’s writing vs. visual thinking?
It’s all writing. Here, I’m writing with other people’s images and my own and telling a new story hopefully. But it’s all thought up in different physical and mental places. I cannot write a book and think about art at the same time. I can’t write a book and think about making a film at the same time. I’m very good at compartmentalizing and I can concentrate on one thing, but I cannot do two things at once.
Okay, so the art and film making comes from two separate thought processes. That makes sense. I am curious where all this work came from… Was all the work in this show sourced from private collections?
A lot of it was. We had to go out into the world to find everybody to get them, from all the people who bought them. It’s been great. And then some are artist proofs. I save a lot of the AP’s, those are the works that I keep from each series.
Are you making any more films or are you done?
I participate in the film world. I still get paid to write. I just wrote a sequel for Hairspray for HBO. Female Trouble just got redone by Criterion and it was just released in New York…
How did I not know this?
I don’t know. It was huge. The Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored it and it opened in NY at The Theatrical, it’s beautiful.
But not another new film? Is this because they are too expensive?
The independent film world I knew is over. They want me to do a film for a million dollars and I can’t go back to making a film like that. I have four employees, three houses, and I can’t be an anarchist at 72.
No more anarchy?! Why not?
I already did it. It’s boring now. I move forward always. I don’t have any needlepoint pillows with clever sayings on them in my home, but if I did mine would say, Don’t Go Back. I think it’s always better in the future. My next thing is a new book that I have been working on for three years. It’s called Mister Know-it-all because I have an opinion on everything.
You sound pretty busy…
I’m getting ready for the Christmas tour I do every year in 17 cities. I’ve got a voiceover job for five days next week. I am busier than I have ever been in my life. Why stop? I might drop dead if I did.
I’m fine with being this kind of busy, though. I balance it out. I don’t work on Saturday or Sunday.
What do you do on the weekends?
Go to dinner. Hang out with friends. Go to the movies or theater. I have an apartment in NY, another in San Francisco, and I live in Provincetown in the summer. I have a lot of options.
Are you in Baltimore much?
As much as I have always been. I like it here better than ever because it’s still bohemian. There are no kids doing anything interesting in Manhattan these days, but in Baltimore, the young people are making things. You can still be an artist.
Also, most of the young people I know who are finding success, mostly in the music business, are staying here. They’re buying places, which is really important. That’s been the main battle here – getting people to stay. You used to have to leave to have success but you don’t have to leave any more.
What about for visual artists such as yourself?
It’s the hardest with collectors, because they don’t feel like the art is real unless it’s bought in NY.
How do we fix that? There is amazing work being made here.
It needs that stamp of approval from a certain type of tastemaker for collectors to feel comfortable. I’m not saying it’s right. But that’s true in every city that’s not NY; it’s everywhere – not just here.
What about museums making a commitment to exhibit and collect work that comes from their own cities? Do you see your exhibition here as a way for the BMA to become more connected to the culture of Baltimore?
You never want to show art just because it’s local. That’s not a reason, the same way art is not collectible simply because it’s made somewhere else. A museum needs to show the best possible work it can, and if it can do this with global and local artists, I am for it.
Photo Essay by Jill Fannon
John Waters: Indecent Exposure is a ticketed exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art from October 7, 2018 — January 6, 2019.
Community Celebration: October 7 · 1:00pm – 5:00pm- This afternoon of activities for all ages features a free collage workshop, photo booth, and John Waters-inspired refreshments! During the Celebration, save $5 on admission to the exhibition. Discount applied at checkout.
The first retrospective of John Waters’s visual arts career in his hometown of Baltimore presents more than 160 provocative photographs, sculptures, and video and sound works. The exhibition concludes with a gallery devoted to ephemera, including objects from Waters’s home and studio that inspire him, and three peep-shows featuring footage from his rarely seen underground movies of the 1960s.