“Witty is always funny in the art world, but is funny acceptable, too?” asks John Waters. “It’s a thin line.” And it’s just one of the tenuous borders that the pencil-thin-mustachioed artist gleefully trampled across in his latest exhibition at Marianne Boesky. Also left smudged in the wake of Waters’ C-prints, sculptures and video — a G-rated remake of his cult-classic Pink Flamingos — are divisions between innocence and perversity, satire and parody, tribute and travesty.
The show’s title, “Beverly Hills John,” a nod to the fizz of fermented glamour that loosely united the 42 works, is shared by a portrait of the artist as plastic surgery victim. The plumped, tightened Waters was flanked by augmented visages of Justin Bieber and Lassie, while the theme of mortality literally raised its head — and scythe — in a photo of Jack and Jackie Kennedy disembarking Air Force One in Dallas, with the president trailed by the Grim Reaper.
Taking on the obscenity of celebrity, Waters deployed the pitch-perfect sense of parody evident in his 2003 Visit Marfa poster in imagining Brainiac, a National Enquirer-meets-New York Review of Books tabloid fronted by an obese Joan Didion and news of a beyond-the-grave sighting of critic Hilton Kramer (“He’s in hell!”). Although a few works did not rise above the status of visual puns (“Did not sell” spelled out in red-dot stickers; a bondage-themed baby stroller), many offered a slower burn, including manipulations of the photographs of Ansel Adams, whose placid vistas are disturbed by vulgarities ranging from wind turbines to a menacing clown.
It was in works such as Cancel Ansel, in which multiple images, ideas or pulp novel covers are arrayed in sequence, that Waters’ directorial instinct dazzled. His knack for pacing and pay-off is apparent in mock-storyboard works that recombine frames of other directors’ films to create new narratives, such as one that suggests a lost Three Stooges short involving a visit to the proctologist, giving new meaning to physical comedy.