John Waters, Pet, 2009, color photograph, 18 x 24".

John Waters, Pet, 2009, color photograph, 18 x 24".

John Waters

McClain Gallery

John Waters, Pet, 2009, color photograph, 18 x 24".

Would John Waters’s artwork be any good if it wasn’t by John Waters? That’s a hard question to answer, because it’s nearly impossible to separate the experience of looking at his art (featuring such Waters-esque things as celebrities, bodily fluids, B movies, and tabloids) from what one knows of his work as a director, author, and public figure. So the question becomes, Are judgments about artistic quality beside the point when dealing with a subject whose very success lies in the exaltation of bad taste?

I ask because many of the pieces featured in “Neurotic,” a sort of miniretrospective of works dating from 1993 to 2009, are essentially one-liners. Product Placement, 2009, for example, features movie stills rephotographed such that various household consumer items appear supported by the perfectly poised open hands of movie stars: Marlon Brando carries a tube of Colgate in Julius Caesar, Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments grips a spray bottle of Tilex, Willem Dafoe clutches a jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise in Platoon, and so on. Sure, these incongruous juxtapositions are funny (I mean, who can’t appreciate the humor of Head & Shoulders inserted into Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast?), but once you get the work’s conceit, that’s pretty much all there is. Similarly, Faux Video Room, 2005, is a chuckle-inducing fake-out that simulates the predictably sterile conditions of viewing multimedia in a gallery context, the piece inevitably looping in a darkened back room. Hearing the familiar muffled audio upon entering the main gallery, one spots the telltale curtain at the rear of the space, only to peer behind it and find nothing more than a wall, painted black, on which an iPod and speakers have been mounted. It’s a good trick, but it works only once.

Still, you can’t help but feel that the tepidness of such gags is the point in Waters’s artwork. The gentle mixture of discomfort and embarrassment that results from viewing such “bad” art is consistent with the earnestness of even his most abject gestures; there is something admirable (and, paradoxically, compassionate) about Waters’s tirelessness in supporting and promoting behaviors that fall outside mainstream culture. At McClain, classic Waters motifs of sex and perversion were dutifully represented in such pieces as Chesty, 1993, a matted and framed portrait of actress Chesty Morgan, who was a Guinness World Record holder for the size of her breasts; On Me Rag, 2006, an oversize towel printed with the phrase ON ME NOT IN ME; and Headline #1, 2006, an eight-foot-long enlargement of the actual tabloid headline ‘ED SULLIVAN RAPED ME!’

Waters has been known to poke deliberate fun at the art world (for his stint as a guest curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year, he recorded an audio guide in pig latin as a send-up of indecipherable art jargon). But I got my own laughs thinking about the unintentional commonalities between some of Waters’s “little movie” photographs—arrangements of images made by photographing the TV screen while a video or DVD is paused—and the Neue Sachlichkeit typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Both groups of work involve the task of identifying and searching out multiple examples of the same subject. But instead of documenting such affectless objects as water towers, framework houses, or blast furnaces, Waters gives us every screen shot he can find of, say, a needle puncturing an arm, in Movie Star Junkie, 1997, or different instances of vomit, in Puke in the Cinema, 1998. Of course, to consider Waters an adherent of the Düsseldorf School of Photography is ridiculous—which only proves there’s no reason to think about Waters’s artworks as the product of anyone but himself.

Jennifer King