A cult film director's retrospective brings him back to the site of his first solo show.

It’s easy enough to revisit a favorite movie by writer-director John Waters. The filmmaker’s early specimens of supremely bad taste, “Multiple Maniacs” (1970) and “Female Trouble” (1974), appear on Blu-ray. Or you might encounter his Hollywood-produced dark comedies, such as “Serial Mom” (1994), on cable. But the Baltimore native’s visual art career isn’t so widely known, nor quite as accessible as flipping on a TV.

So when Waters landed his first retrospective exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art last fall, Sherri Geldin made sure John Waters: Indecent Exposure would also come to the Wexner Center for the Arts. “There was absolutely no question that we wanted that show to be presented here,” says Geldin, the center’s director.

The exhibition of Waters’ delightfully weird photographs and sculptures makes its debut outside Baltimore on Feb. 2 at the Wex. It’s the most recent alliance in an enduring relationship between Waters and Geldin, who once served together for about a decade on the board of the New York-based Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

“He’s the most approachable person,” Geldin says of Waters. “He’s almost sort of impish and wickedly funny at the same time.”

In 1999, while Waters was in Columbus to show “Female Trouble,” the Wex became the first public institution to present his visual art in a solo show. “I’ve been there many times, and it’s really a great place,” says Waters, who served on the Wex’s International Advisory Council in the 1990s.

Waters, 72, collected visual art as a teenager, but he didn’t create his own until the 1990s, when he took a photograph of “Multiple Maniacs” while playing it on a VCR (an attempt to capture a still image from the film). “My early movies are technically bad anyway, but this took it to a new level of technical incompetence, which made it look better than it ever could’ve looked,” Waters says.

His Indecent Exposure exhibit treads familiar territory. It’s chock-full of pop culture allusions, representations of B-grade celebrities and sendups of cult movies, all of which reflect Waters’ status as a film fan, says Bill Horrigan, the Wex’s curator-at-large.

“That’s why so much of his work turns in on itself—it’s about movie stars and moviemaking,” Horrigan says. “On one level, it’s actually quite conceptually sophisticated; on another level, it’s deliberately kind of dumb.”

Waters puts it this way: “The unifying theme is a delight at what can go wrong in the art world and show business.” For example, Waters altered several prints to depict face-lifted versions of Justin Bieber, Lassie and himself. “I know people that look like that, and they don’t look old,” Waters says. “They look like mutants, but they don’t look old.” Throughout, Waters’ sarcastic sense of humor shines. The print “A Passion for Audrey” displays superimposed hickeys on the neck of Audrey Hepburn, whom Waters considers to be “the actress least likely to have hickeys all over her.”

Indecent Exposure will also serve as a coda for Geldin. It’s one of the final exhibits she’ll oversee at the Wex prior to stepping down, and she relishes the opportunity to highlight Waters’ creativity beyond his cult films.

For his part, Waters sees a natural link between his movies and his visual art. “It’s the same,” he says. “It’s telling stories.”


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