The first time I experienced John Waters' peculiar genius was in 1981, when I went to see his then-unknown film, Polyester , which was being presented in a strange new format called Smell-o-Vision—an experience that, the poster promised, would "Blow your Nose!"
To make Smell-o-Vision work, everyone in the audience was given a card with numbered dots on it. When, during the movie, a number flashed on the screen, audience members were instructed to scratch and sniff the appropriate dot. The only thing I remember from that night (and I will remember it the rest of my life) is seeing a garden full of roses on the screen along with a flashing number. I scratched the number on the card and inhaled, expecting to smell some roses, but the odor on the card was putrid. Then the camera panned to a giant dog turd, and I busted out laughing. The joke was on me, and I loved it, because smelling shit is not normally very funny. Context is everything, you see.
Which brings me to Absentee Landlord , the exhibit John Waters assembled as guest curator for the Walker's ever-evolving Event Horizon project, an ongoing effort to display the Walker's entire collection over the course of three years.
Exhibits like these have more than a whiff of gimmick about them. Because yes, the Walker is hoping that Waters' name and reputation alone will lure people to the museum. Whatever you expect Absentee Landlord to be, however, I can assure it's not. John Waters has made a career out of defying people's expectations, and that ethos is on display throughout the show in ways both large and small. If anyone can make the Walker's collection funny, Waters can. All he had to do was scratch the surface, and voilà!
Waters is much more than a mere prankster, though. He's an artist and collector himself, so he is sensitive to the possibilities of art, as well as the disappointment and emptiness of art that is mere artifice. Beauty is not his thing; work that challenges, infuriates, subverts, satirizes, and perplexes people is. "I'm interested in artists who are okay with being hated," Waters explained during the media preview. "Because the work we hate today is often the work we end up liking and admiring in the future."
To create Absentee Landlord , which he organized around the theme of "troublemakers," Waters spent a year with free access to the Walker's collection and carte blanche to choose and arrange the works however he saw fit. That's why you'll see a small DeKooning displayed six inches off the ground—it's his way of bringing one of the greatest artists of the 20th century down to earth.
In this and many other ways, Waters' sense of humor permeates the show—particularly in the work of his own he chose to include. But Waters is quick to defend his choices on artistic grounds. "There's no camp in this show," he says. "There's nothing that's so bad it's good. But there's a lot that's so different it's great. Much of it is audacious and subversive, but it's all great art."
Keep this in mind when you walk up to a painting of some flowers and get squirted in the face with water. If that happens, you have just experienced one of Waters' own works, "Hardy Har," which he says is his response to museums that have ludicrously strict rules about getting too close to the art on display.
Waters' sense of humor isn't for everyone, but you have to admire the irreverence. It's refreshing to see someone skewer the preciousness and pretentiousness of the art world. That's why the narrations on the audio tour are done in Pig Latin—to poke fun at the inflated, over-serious tone of so much art criticism. Or why one of the video installations is just a curtain with a blank black wall—it's Waters' way of saying that he is sick and tired of pretentious video installations. Except for the one he's included, which is film of a McDonald's restaurant being slowly flooded from floor to ceiling.
Waters has chosen to present many of the works in pairs, to initiate a kind of artistic conversation between the works. For instance, a piece called "Carpet #9," by Mike Kelley, is displayed next to a painting called "Park City Grill," by John Currin. Waters says he likes the Kelley piece—which is a framed, 4x8-foot swath of orange carpet—because "minimalism isn't usually ugly, but this is both minimalist and ugly." As is the Currin, which creepily subverts the art of portraiture by stretching, elongating, and exaggerating people's features until they are, well, ugly. He's also attracted to art that involves meat—raw or cooked, it doesn't seem to matter.
Waters' favorite part of the show isn't a painting, though, it's an installation by Gregory Greene that's similar to one Waters has in his own home. Called "Workroom #9," the installation is a meticulous re-creation of the lair of someone who is making a sophisticated pipe bomb. The room is full of bomb-making materials like nails, ball bearings, soldering irons, and pieces of pipe. Everything in the room is "perfectly legal," says Waters, and he likes it because it looks like the bomber has left the room in haste, leaving behind "a warning of potential chaos and violence in the world." Waters is a notorious bomb-tosser in his own right, so it's no surprise that he would be attracted to an almost literal replication of that idea.
Though Absentee Landlord has many moments of humor and surprise, there's nothing wacky about it—nothing that makes you wince or groan, the way some of Waters' movies do. It's all surprisingly thoughtful, so much so that you may come away with a new level of respect for the king of camp. Bubbling just beneath the surface of Waters' irreverence is a deep respect for the necessity of art in a world where manipulation and salesmanship have become their own perverse art form. When people are being lied to and threatened—in the name of freedom, capitalism, and the American way—Waters' immediate impulse is to expose the lie and embrace the truth, especially if it gives you an excuse to break the rules and piss someone off. That's why all the receipts from the development of the show are on full display in their own case—because no one ever tells the average person how much these shows cost. The answer: a lot.
It'd be hard to find a safer place in the world to cause trouble than an art museum, but give Waters props for trying. All great artists are troublemakers, Waters insists. It's what they do. It's why we love them. And besides, if it's done right, it can be a heckuva lot of fun.
Absentee Landlord continues at the Walker Art Center through March 4, 2012.