In a new photography exhibit at Grimaldis Gallery (his first art show in Baltimore since 2002), John Waters juxtaposes images of the Palace of Versailles with shots of the Versailles apartment complex in Towson, comparing the real deal in France with its suburban counterpart. Why? One reason, he told the Brew, is because the building makes him laugh.
The exhibit features a smorgasbord of photographs and sculptures Waters began creating as early as 1992, many of which comment on what Waters knows best: film. A conversation with Waters opens up new layers of meaning in a show that can appear completely random without context. One piece has a chillingly ironic connection to terrorism. Another elicits what is probably, it’s safe to say, one of the most exuberant and profound soliloquies ever triggered by the title of an anal porn movie.
Here’s our Q & A. . . . . .
FERN SHEN: You haven’t had a show in Baltimore since 2002. How’d you come to be doing a show here?
JOHN WATERS: Whenever you have a new show its usually in New York or Los Angeles and I have a dual show this year, because my main dealer is in New York. And, it’s sort of like the film business, the art business now. Once you’ve had your world premiere you have satellite shows and I really like the Grimaldis Gallery. I think it is the one that in Baltimore is the most connected with the New York art world, or the international art world.
FS: You have to applaud Grimaldis. They’re sort of the last man standing in Baltimore.
JW: Well, there’s a lot of new galleries certainly but I think Grimaldis has been there for a long time and runs to me really top-rate show.
FS: How did you get the idea for the Versailles show?
JW: Because I drive by it all the time when I go visit my mother and it always made me LAUGH, actually. Not meanly, it just startled me, and I just always wondered and tried to imagine the marketing meetings when they came up with that name. And also, at the same time, Jeff Koons has a giant show in the REAL Versailles right now and it’s a giant beautiful art book and it was a hugely successful exhibition that actually made a lot of people angry, just because his work was in Versailles….And I just thought , wow, it sure means a lot of different things. And I always wondered, the people that live there, how THEY feel about it. Do they think its funny? Did they move in there because they think its one of the most grandiose place to live? Do they have a sense of humor about it? Do they roll their eyes about it? Do they like it? Dislike it? I don’t know—I’ve never met anybody that lives there.
FS: Other than going up to see your parents in Lutherville, do you roam around the suburbs?
JW: No, I don’t. Actually. (Laughs).
JW: I go to visit Divine’s grave, which is in Towson. Once in a while, I go to the Towson movies. That’s about it.
FS: I wondered if you even need to. Maybe you have a reserve of childhood memories of ‘conventionality’ in the suburbs.
JW: I ran from the suburbs quite early. I’m not against where I grew up. Living there is beautiful. Lutherville is actually even prettier than when I grew up there. It’s really been restored even more. It’s beautiful. I go back sometimes at Christmas and I look at the house where we used to live and the people that are there, I think, very sweetly, have Santa Claus being pulled by pink flamingoes on the front lawn. And ONCE, I drove by there very slowly on Christmas Eve, which I usually do, and I saw the kid that lived there, and I pulled over and he probably thought I was, like, a child molester or something but maybe he recognized me. I think he did. And I said, ‘’Do you live in my bedroom?” And I told him which one had been mine, and he said, “Yes.” And I said, ‘I thought a lot of weird stuff for my movies in that bedroom.”
FS: How do you think about doing visual art, versus doing movies? Is there a different mindset, or different need you’re serving?
JW: Well, it’s a different world and I’ve always said that in the film world you have to pretend eight million people are gonna love it and in the art world, if eight million people love it, it’s really BAD. So it’s the reverse aesthetic, in a way. But I’m still using humor. I’m still trying to use satire and insider knowledge about some field—the movie business in this case. But I think them up in different places. They don’t cross over, my ideas ,very much I guess, except the movie Pecker, which I did make about the contemporary art world. I am a collector of contemporary art. I’m very much in that world. It is a different way for me to express humor I guess, which is what I always do in whatever field I’m in, whether I’m writing books or doing one-man shows or doing artwork or doing movies or writing journalism. It’s all a different way to present my ideas to the world, where hopefully I get you to look at something in a different way.
FS: You have a sunny personality!?
JW: I say in my new book I believe in the basic goodness of people, yeah. I try to understand people’s behavior even if it is behavior that seems repugnant. And that’s why strangers on airplanes tell me the most personal things about their life because I think they just think I’ll understand anything and they probably didn’t pick a bad person to confide in.
FS: I was thinking about the stalker piece in your show. Do those people ever scare you, or do you have a bond with them?
JW: The thing about that piece is that if any of those people are scary it’s the one that wrote ‘Signed, Love, Bill.’ The ones that write that stuff are usually doing it with humor. . . Real stalkers, they usually go after people that are on television and the most normal sitcoms. They DON’T go after the weird people. You don’t ever read about Mick Jagger getting a stalker. It’s the normal ones that get stalkers.
FS: Or the cast of the Jersey Shore–
JW: They always tell you not to talk about stalkers because they’re encouraging it. Mostly, any of the people that wrote any of those things, that would appear scary to others, did not scare me. But what I guess I’m saying in that piece is that whenever you do a signing in a bookshop or anything you are putting yourself in danger, in a weird way.
FS: What’s your favorite piece in the show?
JW: Oh I don’t know that I have a favorite. I just love seeing them! Like, I hadn’t seen, ‘Careful He Might Hear You’ in a while. When you haven’t seen them in a while, they seem fresher. I guess my favorite one would probably be the toughest one, which is called “9/11.” If you look at it, its just two of the most innocuous Hollywood movies that no one remembers— I can barely remember. One is Doctor Dolittle 2 and the other is A Knight’s Tale. Those were the two films that were playing on the planes. So it was a terrible detail. There were five planes and two airlines, so there was only two movies because each are allowed to have a movie. I guess, it’s a terrible thing to say but they never started the movies. So it would have been WORSE if you were on the plane watching those movies. Maybe it is a TINY piece of optimism, even though it doesn’t seem like it. And to me, I’m not making fun of what happened, what I’m doing is pointing out the only detail in that terrible day that had anything to do with show business, and how macabre the most innocent detail can be made to be, by world events.
FS: That’s the first I’ve ever heard of your art addressing something like that.
JW: Well, everything I do certainly has crime as part of it. What is terrorism except big-time crime?
FS: Tell me about the meat photo in the show.
JW: That one is called “Ham.” I did it as a joke, because it’s the worst thing you could call an actor. So I’ve always thought that any actor, or even better, a casting agent who would have that in his office REALLY would have self-confidence. But, oddly enough, the people have always bought that piece are Jewish people and I never ever thought about (it). It’s like the one thing you’re not supposed to eat.
FS: So you have different versions of each piece?
JW: There are five of each one.
FS: Over what period of time did you make them?
JW: Well I first started doing this, I think, in 1992. In the beginning they used to be editions of eight and now it’s down to five.
FS: What’s your big seller?
JW: Oh I don’t know. Well, I would say in this show the ones where there are only one left are- The “7734” sign that spins around and says “HELL” upside down. I think “My Ass is Haunted,” there’s only one of it.
FS: What do you do to stoke your fires for art or whatever you do?
JW: I need to go, every three weeks, to about 35 gallery shows.
FS: What have you seen lately that you like?
JW: I’m going to New York this weekend and I’ll see a lot there on Saturday. My last show I really liked was the Urs Fischer show at the New Museum. And the Peter Fischil David Weiss show at Matthew Marks and the Vincent Fecteau show at Matthew Marks. Those were my three favorite shows of the fall.
FS: You have these multiple residences and you go from one to the other. Are there certain times when its time to go back to Baltimore?
JW: Baltimore is my home. I always feel like it is. Yeah, I love to be here. But you know my doormats say “Welcome Home” in the other two places too, but this is my real home. I ALWAYS want to be here. But I like to live in a couple places. It doesn’t matter because everyday I just have think of stuff in the morning. It doesn’t matter WHERE I think of it. But, if I’m doing art, it’s always here because my studio’s here in Hampden. My art shows are the same thing as a movie. I have to think them all up before I do it. I would say that every piece in this show was thought up before I actually ever found the source material, did the shots or anything, so its another writing job in a way. I just USE photography; I’m hardly Ansel Adams. My work is not about photography; it’s about editing…and writing. It’s really about editing. What do you put something with, that changes the meaning?
FS: “My Ass is Haunted”? Is that just a funny line?
JW: The idea to me was that, if your ass WAS haunted, what would that MEAN? And I think it was probably just some anal sex movie (I never saw the movie) but to ME I just love the idea, if your ass WAS haunted, what would that MEAN? Would you, like, fart eerily? Or, would you ONLY be able to have sex with GHOSTS? I don’t know! I’m still undecided what that would actually mean if your ass WAS haunted. Would that be a GOOD thing or a BAD thing? Haunted in a GOOD way or a BAD way? It could mean everything from rectal cancer to being able to fly, if your ass was haunted. I don’t know. Or getting better seats. I don’t know what it means. But I hope people ask themselves the question. I hope they LOOK at it. I’m not sure they DO, but I encourage thinking that way.
FS: It certainly got me thinking…If the world has gotten more outrageous, how do you envision yourself as a commentator on it?
JW: I don’t think it’s changed a bunch. I try to never try too hard. I think that’s the ultimate sin. And I think people do do that sometimes today. You’re not seamless, if you’re trying too hard. Has the world changed? The world’s changed more than I have, but I’ve changed too, certainly. The angry man that made Pink Flamingos is not the 63-year-old man today that has a really lovely life. I don’t have a lot to be angry about. I think this quote I’ve said more than any other quote in the world but, ‘A 20 year old angry man is sexy. A 63-year-old angry man is an asshole.’
FS: Getting back to that part of the anatomy again.
JW: Well you know, in this town, let me tell you something, I learned this a long time ago. Whenever I was directing a movie, and I had 100 extras, and you’re not allowed to tell them what to say because they’re not Screen Actors Guild – they can ad lib. The assistant director tells them “Ok in this scene, you hate something. Action!” Every person would yell “asshole!” without even talking about it. It is a word that is used more in Baltimore than every other city.
FS: Speaking of Baltimore, Obama and the GOP are coming here.
JW: What’s Obama coming for?
FS: The Republicans are coming together for a retreat. They’ll think big thoughts and they’re doing it Baltimore. And Obama is coming.
JW: You gotta go everywhere. That’s why I read The Wall Street Journal everyday. I read the opinions – I don’t agree with them but they’re very smart and well-written. You’ve got to know what people think.
FS: Talk radio?
JW: Oh I can’t listen to any of them. I don’t listen to either side. The side that I agree with is just as bad to me as listening to the ones I don’t agree with. I’ve already made up my mind. I don’t care what other people’s opinions are. I read the newspapers everyday for source material. I very rarely read opinion pieces because either side is biased.
FS: So you read The Wall Street Journal? What else?
JW: Everyday I get six delivered. In Baltimore every morning I get delivered to my door – it’s not so easy either – The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New York Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
FS: My husband says he was behind you at the Rotunda Giant one time and you were buying pork rinds and every tabloid that they have.
JW: He’s wrong because I get all the tabloids in the mail. I NEVER buy them at the newsstand. I could have been buying the Daily News, ‘cause that’s the only one I can’t get delivered—That IS a tabloid. I get like 150 magazines a month. Well its less now because there are less magazines… The tabloids I get in the mail are the Enquirer, the Star, and the Globe. That’s the only REAL tabloids. Then I get People, Us, and all that stuff. But I also get, you know, other kinds of magazines. I’m a dying breed.
FS: What happened with your movie? (Waters has said that he had a movie project in the works that was cancelled).
JW: I don’t know — what happened to the movie business? No medium-price independent films are getting made now. They’re either under a million or, a hundred million. And that’s because there’s no companies anymore, there are no foreign sales. The business has radically changed. I’m still trying. It is not just me — I don’t know anybody who can get a five million dollar independent film made today.
FS: Why? Because the business model has changed? Has the market has changed?
JW: Everything’s changed. Where they’re shown has changed. Foreign sales—there’s no such thing. The foreign sales idea is to sell your movies before you made them… With the recession that completely ended.
FS: Are there particular issues—
JW: No, they LIKE this crap! They pay me to write it! I pitched it and I got a development deal and they liked it and wanted to make it. And then New Line went out of business. So, it’s complicated.
FS: Does it feel like something that could ever be revived?
JW: I hope so. But, you know, I’ve got lots of things I do. I just finished a book I worked on for two and a half years. It comes out in June. That’s the main thing I’ve been working on. It’s called Role Models.
FS: Are some of them people from Baltimore?
JW: Yeah, there’s a lot of Baltimore stuff in this book.
FS: Any highlights?
JW: No, you have to read it! Playboy is publishing a chapter first, “Baltimore Heroes.”
FS: Well I don’t want to scoop those guys…
JW: Alright, well, I’m going to go visit my mother. I have to go past Versailles.
Versailles will be featured at C. Grimaldis Gallery from Jan 20-Feb 27, 2010. 523 N. Charles Street. Ph: 410-539-1080