L'Officiel Hommes USA
John Waters has shocked and awed audiences for decades with his transgressive cult-classic films. For his new art exhibition at Sprüth Magers, the filmmaker and provocateur takes on his touchiest subject yet.
“You can’t say anything these days,” says John Waters. “One could argue,” I reply, “that you’ve always said things you weren’t supposed to say.” He pauses. “Yes, I have. But it’s a thin line, and somehow I have always gotten away with it...i haven’t had a ‘cancel’ attempt yet because I make fun of the things I love, not hate.”
Waters’ love-not-hate quip is one I recognize from his past press, repeated, perhaps, to diffuse relentless scrutiny of the most provocative aspects of his work, which spans six decades of filmmaking, performance, non-fiction writing, and fine art. His films in particular, critically venerated for their gonzo flamboyance, are popularly remembered for their salaciousness. When I agreed to profile Waters, I promised myself to defy the obvious, to sanctify his satire, to approach him as an acolyte formed rather than shocked by his signature grot (I played Edna in my high school’s
production of Hairspray—adapted from his 1988 film of the same name—and found 1972’s Pink Flamingos soon after). When a straight acquaintance asked me who John Waters was, however, I resorted to clichés and memes: “He took midnight movies to Hollywood! His muse was an obese drag queen named Divine, and she ate literal dog shit at the end of Pink Flamingos, which was banned in several countries, and one continent! Remember Hairspray? The original? That’s him!” My flaccid attempt at Waters 101 defaulted to the most widespread—vanilla!—fixations on his work. And now here I was, with my idol on the horn, implying “one could argue’’ that the Pope was Catholic.
“We were making fun of hippies,” beams Waters, 74, from his Baltimore home, referring to his early films: microbudget collaborations with a repertory cast and crew known as the Dreamlanders. “Even though we were sort of hippies... we made movies to make hippies nervous. And I still do that: make liberals nervous, even though I am a liberal.” Waters made his first feature, Mondo Trasho, in 1969; after that came Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974), each centered on a woman—always played by Harris Glenn “Divine” Milstead, who was a man—devoted to perversion and crime. Waters’ Dreamland skewered the fringe lifestyles of its denizens: gays, punks, poor folks, fat folks, and so on. The tension between laughing-at and laughing-with ignited the arthouses and college campuses where the films played. Perhaps Waters’ legacy, and my own bewildered gravitation toward his work, springs from the line he draws between yesterday’s “hippies” and today’s “liberals.” The former had a sense of humor; the latter don’t, and I’m piqued when Waters identifies himself as such. By the end of the Trump era, “liberal” had emerged as a pejorative among my peer group, disillusioned as we were by the righteous ineptitude of the Democratic establishment. We began to shed the moral certainties of doomscroll wokeness and clickbait activism without quite renegotiating our pieties toward issues of race, class, gender, sex, death, or history. “Fun” and its “making” remain unfashionable at best.
A 2006 diptych of C-prints by Waters titled “9-11” is featured in Hollywood’s Greatest Hits, a retrospective of his mixed-media works showing this spring at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles. Photographed on film in front of a television, “9-11” presents the title cards of Steve
YOU’VE GOT to LAUGH. SOMETIMES YOU LAUGH hardest WHEN IT’S THE most PAINFUL.
Carr’s 2001 film Dr. Doolittle 2 and Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale from the same year. This duet of commercial comedies—which, per Waters, “no one remembers”— garnered nearly $300 million in ticket sales between them. They were also the films scheduled to screen on American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, which were hijacked by terrorists and flown into Manhattan’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. When the artist reveals this to me, I laugh from my throat. “You laugh,” says Waters, clocking my nerves, “but it is a joyous piece in a way, because they never got to actually play them. It would have been worse if you were crashing into the World Trade Center watching Dr. Doolittle 2. I’m always an optimist!” Taken literally, “9-11” could be read as a cynical Hollywood send-up, packaged to crash and burn. The work, however, emerges not far in Waters’ oeuvre from Cecil B. Demented, a 2001 film about a scuzzy gang of underground filmmakers who capture an A-list actress (Melanie Griffith) and force her to act in their midnight movie. The slimy film buffs—tattooed with the names of arthouse heroes like David Lynch, Pedro Almodóvar, and Spike Lee—radicalize their hostage, who memorably screams “make good movies or die!” at the film’s climax, just before her hair catches fire. If “9-11” sends lowbrow cinema hurtling to its demise, Cecil B. Demented burns its highbrow equivalent at the stake. “Taste” itself—arguably a bourgeois affectation of the “liberal” sphere—warps and bends under Waters’ ruthlessly playful gaze, giving way to a disarmingly sincere ethic of cultural consumption. “You’ve got to laugh,” insists Waters. “Sometimes you laugh hardest when it’s the most painful.”
HUMOR, that’s HOW IT WORKS. YOU GO IN and YOU EMBARRASS the ENEMY and YOU MAKE THEM FEEL STUPID. And YOU WIN.
Toward the end of my allotted time with Waters, the call drops. I frantically redial his assistant’s phone. It rings, my thoughts drift: how did I wind up on this call? I’m not a journalist, and until recently, I have rarely been published. I’m an actress and former model known primarily for being competent and transgender. Sure, Waters and I are loosely connected as public-facing Hollywood queers reckoning with straight audiences, but where straight “nervousness” excites him, it has at many points tormented me. I Googled myself a few years ago, and the top related search was an inquest into whether or not my character on a popular television show was a man (it was my first time playing a character onscreen that wasn’t expressly written as transgender). My name-search plunged me into a months-long depression that culminated in eight cosmetic facial procedures; it occurs to me that the same discovery might have delighted Waters, had the tables been turned.
When he greets me for the second time, I tell him that I want to hear about Elizabeth Coffey, a relatively unsung Dreamlander best known for her cameo as Chick with a Dick in Pink Flamingos. In the film, she exposes her tits and eponymous dick to a flasher, who runs for the hills. Waters is three steps ahead of me: “Coffey was getting the [sex] change five days later! She said, ‘I did that scene because I knew that I could own that joke forever. And nobody could ever make fun of me.’ And no one ever did.” He goes on for several minutes about Coffey, her bravery, her bohemian spirit, as well as her advocacy for housing for trans elders in Philadelphia, where she lives today. I smile; his love for Coffey is clear and deep. Waters, an artist who might glibly be taxonomized as a “cisgender male,” leveraged the body of a transsexual woman for a sight gag in a midnight movie five decades ago–and it worked. It still works!
“Humor,” says Waters, who has never been canceled. “That’s how it works. You go in and you embarrass the enemy and you make them feel stupid. And you win.”
A full year before the COVID-19 pandemic shattered any illusions of a cohesive, collective reality, Paul Mccarthy began working on a film script about a virus. The story featured a recurring character in the artist’s oeuvre: Santa Claus, who would appear not as a cartoonishly vulgar performance art patriarch or a bronze, buttplug-wielding statue, but rather a pathogen. In the would-be film, St. Nick arrives down a chimney on Christmas Eve and infects a family with his eponymous illness. Once afflicted, the household enters a state of murderous psychosis, and they spend the night killing each other, dying, coming back to life, and killing and dying, over and over again in an endless loop of frenzied rage and violence. The film ends on Christmas morning with only the camera left standing. Slowly it backs away, watchfully exiting the scene of the crime.
The film would have been shot in 2019 and released early the next year, but Mccarthy got busy, and it was moved to the back burner. Shortly after California’s first lockdown orders, he dug out the discarded script, noting with an uneasy incredulity the references to an imminent plague and infection by proximity. Over Zoom, I ask the artist if he worries that by not making the film he unwittingly let something fester that should have been destroyed, thereby unleashing his fantastic vision of violent contagion onto the real world. He doesn’t blink, or laugh. “No,” he says, self-assuredly. “I don’t believe I unconsciously created something.” Though he tells me he does have a long list of times the niche, obsessional subjects of his work coincided with synchronous events in mainstream culture. During the years he spent working on and mounting his mammoth perversity White Snow at the Park Avenue Armory, for example, three Snow Whiteadjacent films were released—maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mirror, Mirror. Whether these parallels can be explained as prophecy, Baader-meinhof phenomenon, or historical conspiracy, Mccarthy prefers not to speculate. Slightly disappointed that the mild, affable artist doesn’t want to assume the role of megalomaniac art-prophet, I suggest that it would require a certain amount of paranoid narcissism to believe one’s work is alchemically changing and twisting the tide of history. “Right,” he replies, winking. “But…there is a list.”
While of course Mccarthy did not himself conjure the coronavirus, it’s nevertheless tempting to impose narratives of magical thinking onto him. His work is extreme and sensorial, and demands hyperbolic leaps of language: He is a provocateur and a plumber of the depths of derangement, a scatalogical terrorist, a wizard of shit; he is a Rabelaisian clown trying to make the king laugh so hard he has a stroke and dies; he is a ketchup-and-mustard debaser, a meat-fucker, a madman; he is a divining rod of Hollywood psychopathy, a lapsed Mormon, an unlapsed freak; he is a vessel for polymorphous perversion and a desublimated patriarch in the service of collective liberation; he is a harbinger of masculinity’s undoing; he is a very sick man. Words stretch and bend beyond recognition in attempting to convey Mccarthy’s work, imperfect proxies for the immediate, visceral reactions common to his audiences: groans, giggles, shudders, hasty exits, uncomfortable attraction.
In the crudest terms, Mccarthy is a famous, if controversial, artist whose work routinely sells for millions of dollars. Born in 1945 to lower-middle-class liberal Mormon parents in Salt Lake City, Utah, he escaped to California to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduating with a BFA degree in painting in 1969, he spent 15 years producing a great body of work—a mix of sculpture, film, and radically transgressive performance art—but never sold anything substantial. In the mid-‘80s he had kids, packed all of his props into three stacked trunks, gave up performing, worked in construction, and got a job teaching at California Institute of the Arts. Then, in 1991, at the age of 45, he participated in a group show of LA artists curated by Paul Schimmel, where his now-famous sculpture “The Garden” sold to Jeffrey Deitch, setting him on a hyperspeed path to the upper echelons of the art world, where he would enjoy a stunningly prolific career.
If you reject this kind of bootstrap narrative, it is also possible to understand Mccarthy as a different kind of American legend: a product of the mythic 1960s San Francisco counterculture, working in a collective context still anathema to the art world’s cult of the individual. This version of the story would emphasize a young Paul leaving Utah after finding the work of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, chasing their humanist, anti-war alternative philosophy of living
WORDS STRETCH and BEND BEYOND RECOGNITION in attempting TO CONVEY Paul MCCARTHY’S WORK, IMPERFECT PROXIES for THE IMMEDIATE, VISCERAL REACTIONS COMMON TO his AUDIENCES: GROANS, GIGGLES, shudders, HASTY EXITS, UNCOMFORTABLE ATTRACTION.
and working in the world. It would emphasize his influences in the existential architecture of Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism’s privileging of process over product, Allen Kaprow’s “Happenings,” which called for the total immersion of life and art, and fealty to radical new ideas over traditional barometers of commercial success.
That Mccarthy’s origin story can be constructed in different ways makes sense, considering that his entire career has been marked by a fascination with imitation, echo, and parody. After a visit by Bruce Nauman to the University of Southern California, where Mccarthy was a graduate student, Mccarthy showed two of his own films at the school’s annual film festival: one depicted a man and a woman going about their daily lives completely nude; the other was an exact, shotfor-shot replica of one of Nauman’s films, with the final frame changed to attribute the film to Mccarthy instead. Both caused a stir, but Mccarthy’s peers were angrier about the alleged theft of Nauman’s artistic property than they were about the explicit nudity. He describes this experience as enlightening; poking fun at Nauman opened up an exciting space of simultaneous parody and homage. In The Black and White Tapes, a series of 13 videos filmed in Mccarthy’s studio from 1970-75, we see a young artist experimenting with hypnotic, repetitive actions, like spinning and spitting, that he would continue to use throughout his work to induce a state of delirium and extreme focus. But these videos also contain hints of parodic homage: “Whipping a Wall and a Window with Paint” is a violent satire of Abstract Expressionism action painting; “Face Painting - Floor, White Line” and “Basement Tapes: Semen Drawing” play with the “body painting” of Carolee Schneemann.
He tells me that some of his most crucial influences have originated in mistakes and misunderstandings. He was “set on fire” by reading Herbert Marcuse on desublimation, R.D. Laing on altered states and psychosis, and especially by Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich’s ideas— fascism as a symptom of mass sexual repression, in which the anxious libidinal drives of the masses are manipulated into idealistic mechanisms of social control, the family as the first cell of authoritarian regime—“turned something on’’ inside Mccarthy, although he now questions how much of it he really understood. For those in the cult of Mccarthy, some of his most beloved pieces from his early, pre-fame period, such as “Class Fool” (for which Mccarthy wreaked havoc on a classroom of students at the University of San Diego, splattering the walls with condiment simulations of bodily fluids, throwing himself back and forth against the walls until he vomits repeatedly, and sodomizing himself with a Barbie doll) are emblematic of Mccarthy’s Reichian crusade against a repressive system of control, a weaponization of psychosexual taboo to test the limits of transgression and the liberatory potential of delirium and derangement. Firmly situated within the culture he attacks, he presents himself as an amalgam of lived experiences, internalized consumerist brainwashing, and inherited traumas from a lifetime of ingesting mediated violence and pornography. Following Reich’s Freudian logic, Mccarthy’s shocking, revolting, upsetting performances are a way of turning himself inside out, blurring the boundaries between the body and the outside world in order to reverse mechanisms of repression and sublimation and reveal the most brutal secrets of our patriarchal society.
As we speak, I attach increasingly fantastical and paranoid implications onto the trajectory of Mccarthy’s career and its intersections with the contemporary art world. He traces the beginning of the art market as we know it to around 1980, coinciding with the advent of trickle-down Reaganomics. The rapid widening of the income gap, the evisceration of public arts funding, and the emergence of the contemporary gallery system created a perfect storm for the birth of an art market catering to the super rich, a market that had nothing to gain from the transient, idealistic performance work of Mccarthy and his peers. Can we avoid reading sinister meaning into Mccarthy’s surprise entry into the art world with 1991’s “The Garden” after decades of obscurity?
The triumph of “The Garden” was in Mccarthy’s transference of some of the ephemeral power of performance into a fixed, sculptural form. “The Garden” is initially encountered as an Edenic scene (appropriated set pieces from the sitcom Bonanza), but upon moving closer we discover two previously hidden dummies, a father and son, mechanically humping the trees and earth, a shocking reveal that turns the viewer into voyeur. If we accept Mccarthy’s performance persona as a Reichian agent of chaos, we can also read his welcome into the art world as a liquidation of his critique by inclusion, and see Mccarthy as a ketchupy blood sacrifice to the all-consuming market, a symbol of the death of the counterculture.
This narrative is, of course, absurd, crudely literal, and perhaps dangerous in its romanticizing of the revolutionary possibilities of performance art. But if we persist in this cynical, suspicious position long enough to examine one of my favorite Mccarthy works, “Painter” (1995), it takes on a grim new meaning. “Painter” is a Willem de Kooning spoof, featuring Mccarthy in what would become his signature fake cartoon nose and clown shoes, poking fun at his own methods, spinning and self-mutilating, working himself into a state of unbridled focus. The video ends with a scene of the beleaguered painter pulling his pants down so a prospective art collector can smell his anus. The collector, after finding his odor acceptable, makes a deal with the gallerist. It’s an extreme, cartoonish satire of the gallery system and the moneyed collectors to whom it caters, but isn’t there something heroically tragic about the figure of the painter? Can’t we read him as a proxy for Mccarthy, who spent years toiling in the trenches of alternative performance spaces? His artwork, his offerings—his shit, in terms of the film—should be repulsive, rotten, threatening to the collector, but instead it is accepted, valued, and integrated into the market. No exit.
Mccarthy gained more access to money and materials over the 30 years since, affecting the scale of his work but not its values. In the White Snow show at the Armory, for example, Mccarthy created a three-fourths scale replica of his childhood home, set within a fairytale forest and displayed as a horrorscape of Disney fantasy and ancestral trauma. Adjacent WS installations boasted massive black walnut sculptures of pornographic Snow White scenes, a fabrication of Nick Ray’s infamous bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, endless hours of film, hundreds of photographs, infinite structures. When I ask about his installations, the critique of materialism at such an awesome, maximal scale, he speaks very candidly. “At the time, I was living some sort of delusion,” he tells me. “I thought there was a place for it, and that was stupid. Stupid on different levels. Stupid that I believed there was a place, and stupid because why should there be a place?”
“It’s a pollutant without a purpose,” Mccarthy says, brutally. “The world is the most fucked place and it doesn’t need this object. Does it need this statement? Does it need the language, the voice in another form? You can do that. That’s a trap that’s different from other traps that I think about. The trap of creating objects or collecting them.”
It’s shocking and moving to hear an artist speak so thoughtfully about basic questions of creation, but questioning everything is part of Mccarthy’s modus operandi. He tells me that reading [Gilles] Deleuze, and living through the explosion of the digital world, “crushed, flooded, and opened up” his understanding of his own work as it relates to structures of repression and desire. He tells himself that he has to “stop with the repetitive explanations” of his work, which set him in some incarnation of his past self. More than trying to explain or rationalize his motives and influences, he’s interested in what he missed, and what new possibilities of transgression our current predicament might provide. Paul is grainy on my computer screen, a floating head inside a box next to a box containing my floating head. “Somebody’s going to come up with something out of this,” he says.
Like most of us, Mccarthy has been inside his house for almost a year now. He describes his environment as like Tarkovsky’s Solaris ship; he’s in an isolated pod somewhere in space, talking to dead relatives, watching household objects pile up in mysterious ways. Before his studio closed down
THE WORLD IS the MOST FUCKED PLACE and IT DOESN’T NEED this OBJECT. DOES IT NEED THIS STATEMENT? Does IT NEED the LANGUAGE, the VOICE IN ANOTHER FORM?
in March of 2020, he says that he was busier than he’d ever been, engaged in a long-term collaboration with the German actress Lilith Stangenberg called A&E, the two of them roleplaying Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun (or Adam and Eve, or Arts and Entertainment) using the bones of Paul’s scripts as an entry into chaotic improvisation, slipping in and out of the void as Paul draws in semi-hitler character. (Some of these large-scale drawings are on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York through April 10, 2021). The two were also planning to reprise Night Vater, their inside-out recreation of Lucrecia Martel’s Night Porter, as a theater piece in Hamburg. And he was contemplating the future of his foray into a new kind of filmmaking. Mccarthy recently completed two features in what he envisions as a series of 20 feature-length episodes for audiences many years in the future, Coach Stage Stage Coach (CSSC) and Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure (DADDA), two slick, cinematic pastiches of John Ford saloon films in which Mccarthy and a cast of actors assume and switch between roles as Biblical characters and political icons, roleplaying stages of violence and enacting drunken bacchanalian rituals. He was busy.
Now he’s not sure what he has to show for the past year. “I work every day,” he says. “But what have I actually done? It’s a very uneasy sensation.” He’s back to thinking about the very basic questions—how to create and how to connect and how to collaborate in a kind of limbic suspension. How to, as he puts it, “go there” with others, and how to navigate the material conditions that may indefinitely prevent close contact. But Mccarthy has spent his career attempting both to accept and subvert the absurdity of existence, and— paranoid Santa prophecies aside—that may make him the living artist best equipped to address problems of creation and collaboration in these strange, disorienting days. Even isolated alone in his house, he’s obsessively working on the A&E project script, writing and rewriting, holding out hope that he’s creating a structure that they will one day be able to enter, play in, and destroy together. I ask him how he imagines the future of his work in this weird new world. Will he stay in the art world or dismantle the machine he’s created and strike off into some new medium beyond film or theater, into something else entirely? He pauses. “I feel like I should just go further,” he says, seriously. “Let’s go further.”