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PHOTOS: Lisa Kyle





“All those things that you think you don’t want others to see,
you should celebrate and exaggerate!”















Attachable mustaches from the
personal collection of John waters.





“I make fun of things that I love. All humor is based on anger.
I’m not bitter. It’s joyous anger.”



Among the oddities in The John Waters exhibition: Sneaky JFK, 2001, Doll.






“My heroes are always outsiders who lose in real life, but win in my movies.”












The Warhol’s John Smith (left) calls Waters an “interesting commentator on American culture.”




















A Sneak Peek at John Waters

The pop icon of the bizarre welcomes anyone who cares (and dares) into his wacky world—where the weird and the off-beat are something to celebrate.

John Waters may be one of the few guys in the world who feels completely comfortable having his photograph taken wearing multi-colored striped pants, a bright purple turtleneck, and matching purple socks. That’s because Waters traffics in eccentricity—his own and others’. He revels in tackiness, celebrates sleaze, and lives to mortify the smarmy and intolerant—which he does regularly in his films and now his photographic art, on display at The Andy Warhol Museum through September 4 in the exhibition, John Waters: Change of Life.

Waters appeared at The Warhol for the opening of his exhibition on May 20, but that wasn’t his first visit to the museum or to Pittsburgh. He was on the celebrity guest list for The Warhol’s grand opening 10 years ago, and the native Baltimorean says he’s a fan of the city with three rivers and an inferiority complex. “Pittsburgh reminds me of Baltimore,” he says, “only you have a much better entrance when you come through that tunnel. It’s such a cinematic entrance.”

And while Pittsburghers—and the rest of the world—continue to grapple with the well-worn image of Pittsburgh as a steel town, the man who’s always attracted to the underdog says he doesn’t see the need for Pittsburgh to shed any old images. “I always thought it was a sexy image,” he insists. And just as he does in his films, Waters recommends, “All those things that you think you don’t want others to see, you should celebrate and exaggerate!”

Waters has made a career out of celebrating things others would just as soon forget (and in some cases, things we couldn’t even dream up). The writer and director of the underground—and not-so-underground—classics Pink Flamingos, Cry Baby, Polyester, Hairspray, and Pecker, Waters has used wit, shock value, and bad taste to cement his status as the closest thing we've currently got to an Andy Warholesque pop culture icon.

He even shares a similar moniker; Andy was the Prince of Pop, while Waters proudly wears a title bestowed upon him by Beat-generation author William S. Burroughs: the Pope of Trash. “That was almost like having it handed down from God almighty to me,” Waters quips.

In the world of John Waters, “trash” includes the grossly overweight transvestite and late film star Divine; slimy characters like the prejudiced, scheming parents played by Sonny Bono and Deborah Harry in Hairspray; and the over-the-top gross-outs of Pink Flamingos.

Joyous Anger
Like Warhol, Waters developed an interest in manipulating and recombining work from one medium into another, as well as capturing the unique or previously unstudied elements of seemingly mundane situations. Waters is also an avid collector, and the selection of personal objects included in Change of Life offer further insight into his singular take on a variety of subjects.

Photographs shot from films viewed on his television or from actors’ floor marks; a sculpture depicting Michael Jackson infamously dangling his baby from a hotel room window; a package of self-adhesive “stylish mustaches”—a different type for each day of the week; a Jackie Kennedy doll wearing a familiar-looking red gown and carrying a gun, titled Jackie Copies Divine’s Look, paired with Sneaky JFK, a doll of President John F. Kennedy dressed in a white gown . . . these are the elements that rule the mind of this quirky artist.

In the exhibition catalog that accompanies Change of Life, Waters explains the president-in-drag by saying: “Maybe just once, JFK was so jealous of Jackie’s fame that he snuck into her closet and put on her look and felt so stupid that he never did it again.”

With both his unconventional art and peculiar characters, Waters challenges notions of what constitutes good taste and good art.

“Art meant dirty when I was young and that’s the way it should stay!” he once proclaimed to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross. As it often is, his tongue was stuck in his cheek when he said it—but only partly.

Waters is particularly fascinated with breaking down taboos, busting through barriers, and showing us what polite society tells us should remain behind closed doors—including homosexuality (like Warhol, Waters is gay), drugs, or disgusting images, such as the famous scene of Divine eating dog dung in Pink Flamingos.

His work has been characterized as angry, but he denies that. “I don’t think any of my work is mean,” Waters says. “I make fun of things that I love. All humor is based on anger. I’m not bitter. It’s joyous anger.

“ I felt rage when I was 20, but a 59-year-old man with rage is an asshole,” Waters continues. “A 19-year-old boy with rage is sexy. Everybody’s dealt a hand. By 30, you can’t bitch about anything with your hand, I believe. By now, you hope you’ve worked some things out. That’s my politics.”

Altered States
You can, however, try to change your hand, and maybe even alter elements of your past. In some cases, Waters has done just that. With his photographic studies, he has essentially re-cut some of his past films and put them in a form that gives them a different impact from the original. For his Zapruder series, Waters compiled a set of 25 stills from his 1967 film Eat Your Makeup. While the film tells the story of a disturbed couple who kidnap three models and force them to eat makeup, the photos focus on scenes from the film that re-enact the Kennedy assassination, featuring transvestite Divine as Jackie.

Another set of images, Waters’ In My House series, is, he says, “Me being a snoop, going through my house and photographing things that I’ve never noticed before. It’s like being a spy in your own house.” In My House invites parallels to Waters’ film Pecker, in which the main character got in trouble with his friends and loved ones for revealing too much of their “culturally challenged” lives through his camera lens.

The culturally challenged, as Pecker’s family is described in the film, is a key theme of Waters’ work. “My heroes are always outsiders who lose in real life, but win in my movies,” Waters says. “And I think my photo work is basically the same. In them I’m praising movies that have lost, or movies that were successful for the wrong reasons.”

John Smith, The Warhol’s assistant director for collections, exhibitions, and research, offers a similar interpretation. “Waters’ photographic work is all about the power of images and the importance of not taking images too seriously,” he says, “or how popular culture is this huge reservoir of images and ideas that artists are continually re-editing, re-thinking, and then transforming into something new.”

As for “culturally challenged” outsiders, they were the coinage of Warhol’s realm as well. In both Warhol’s and Waters’ cases, outsiders became insiders by being associated with these artists. Waters wouldn’t necessarily list that phenomenon as a parallel between his work and Warhol’s, but he does count the ways he was inspired by Warhol.

“To me, the three things that were most important were: Warhol’s lack of technical knowledge in the beginning made you think, ‘I don’t even have to know what I’m doing to do this’; that he turned his friends into stars; and that you could make a movie for almost no money and still wryly comment on the sexual revolution!”

Is It Or Isn’t It?
Waters deals directly with the subjects of sexuality and pornography in the “sideshow” exhibition he has created with The Warhol. Called John Waters Curates Andy’s “Porn,” the exhibition consists of selections Waters made after sifting through Warhol’s artwork and personal collections.

“ For The Warhol to have someone of John’s reputation and his particular turn of mind curating the show seems like the perfect combination. He’s an interesting observer and commentator on American culture, above all the sexual mores of this particular time,” notes Smith.
“ What was thought of as porn in Warhol’s time is not now,” Waters observes. “It’s amazing how the original meanings of the words porn and art are so blurred today, and how they go back and forth through time and how far ahead Warhol was to use some things then that he couldn’t show at the time.”

Waters makes it clear that Andy’s “Porn” is not supposed to be gross or titillating. Instead, he calls it “delightful” and “joyous,” and, if anything, reflective of his own politics. “We included a picture of Adolph Hitler that Warhol had. That’s porn to me,” Waters says.

Andy’s “Porn” isn’t just a show about sex or sexuality,” says Smith. “Waters is using the notion of pornography in a much broader sense and really questioning the fact that what might be pornographic to one person is not to another, and that different people have completely different ideas about what’s disturbing.

“I think the Warhol sideshow can be seen almost as a continuation of the same themes that run through Waters’ show,” Smith says, adding, “We’re certainly not doing the show to upset anyone, but to say that this is a theme that can be found in Warhol’s work and we have an obligation to explore it.”

Early Influences
The Warhol plans to make it clear to visitors that both exhibitions contain material they may prefer to avoid. It also plans to continuously show three of Waters’ earliest, previously unreleased films: 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket; 1966’s Roman Candles; and Eat Your Makeup. Eight other rare or obscure films selected by Waters will air in a companion program titled The Films that Corrupted John Waters.

Waters calls the trio of early works his “juvenilia” films, and says they’re being shown in an art context instead of a cinematic one because he doesn’t think they would hold up as the latter. “They hold up alongside my work in the exhibition because in a way the stills are my little movies, too,” he says. “And you can see in the films that the really early obsessions I had came through again later in my photo work. My big influences were exploitation movies, art films, and failed Hollywood movies, and I tried to put them all together.”

Among Waters’ other early fascinations: horror films (or any movie with “good villains”), murderers, hurricanes, car accidents, scary amusement park rides, freak shows, and in general, anything violent, macabre, or just plain sick.

A subscriber to Variety since age 12, today it’s likely that Waters continually finds new inspiration, influences, and sources of obsession in the 120 periodicals he receives every month. When asked how he finds the time to peruse so many, from his beloved National Enquirer to The New Yorker, reality-show foe Waters replies, “Be single and never watch television.”

Unless of course, you’re using it to turn images into art.

John Waters: Change of Life is sponsored by New Line Cinema. Additional support is provided by Harvey S. Shipley Miller.

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