Review of John Waters: Beverly Hills John at Sprüth Magers Gallery, London

Review of John Waters: Beverly Hills John at Sprüth Magers Gallery, London

Manipulated portraits of Justin Bieber and Lassie peer over a blue baby stroller strapped in bondage gear and covered with names of gay clubs scribbled in black marker. This scene is part of Beverly Hills John at Sprüth Magers, where the iconic director/author/comedian John Waters is taking a stab at sexuality, fame and contemporary American culture through conceptual art in his first London exhibition. His art is an amalgamation, if not a canon, for his eccentric perspective on the world of celebrity, excess, and false glamour. Photo-based artwork, sculpture, and film convey thoughtful reflections that comment on these themes, whilst being loaded with clever sarcasm and pop-culture content. These pieces explore the possible answers to Waters’ proposed question: “Since celebrity is the only obscenity left in the art world, where do I fit in?”

His poignant humour infiltrates such works as Brainiac, a skewed National Enquirer for intellectual types and Congratulations, which ironically uses the symbolic red dot of art sales. He also attempts another perverse twist on cinema with the installation Kiddie Flamingos that includes a film where children from Baltimore – who are not actors – read a script of the 1970s cult classic Pink Flamingos, heavily edited by Waters. While the director is known for being obscene, this one has the kids torn between laughter and disgust.

The theme of childhood fame plays out in Kiddie Flamingos, but there is an evident link between this piece and the Justin Bieber portrait as both enable open interpretation and the works almost complement one another. The exhibition rich in juxtapositions that creates all kinds of shifting paradoxes. She Shoulda Said “No!” for instance, is a piece featuring images of famous women such as Whitney Houston, Princess Diana, Anna Nicole Smith and Amy Winehouse who died tragically. John F. Kennedy also makes an appearance in a different appropriated photograph with a haunting Grim Reaper lurking over him. While Waters’ ways can be devilish, they are not without truth.

His photo-based works, including Cancel Ansel resemble film strips of staged narratives, when actually they are his re-workings of gathered snapshots. Cancel Ansel exemplifies Waters’ way of re-purposing photography. In this piece he propels Ansel Adams’ work into a more contemporary sphere by inserting planes, buildings, and characters in front of idyllic landscapes. The strength of Waters’ work lies in the ideas, and although there are areas where his artistic skills are debatable, what really resonates is his selective eye for editing.

The curation of the exhibition, including the various heights at which the works are hung on the walls, adds to the eccentric and cinematic feel of the show. There are notable works amongst the evident eye-catchers throughout such as the sculpture in the second room nodding to legendary artist Mike Kelly, whom Waters truly admired. It is a welcome sentiment, drawing to the fact this exhibition is more affectionate than acidulous.The large ruler on the wall in the first room entitled 8 ½,  Waters’ literal interpretation of Fellini’s 8 ½, cannot be missed either.

Overall Waters is pushing more than wit in this exhibition, he is making art funny. He does turn the humour back onto himself, also giving his portrait the Hollywood-injected Botox treatment, completing the triptych of photographs alongside Bieber and Lassie. The exhibition is as loaded with abject content as works on view, and it will appeal to those with a taste for the provocateur.

Ashton Chandler Guyatt

Beverly Hills John, Until 15 August, Sprüth Magers, 7A Grafton Street, London, W1S 4EJ.

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1. John Waters, Grim Reaper, 2014, C-Print, © John Waters. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers.