Beverly Hills John, the John Waters show currently at Marianne Boesky gallery, features works by the artist in a variety of mediums, most born of image manipulation and/or appropriation. Waters’s characteristically campy, kitschy, and at times darkly humorous sensibility is evident in Beverly Hills John; these particular works are often not thematically light, demonstrating a more serious, if still funny, preoccupation with legacy and death.
The show’s title suggests that the “John” in question might simply be a resident of Beverly Hills, or, more ambiguously, in service of the locale itself, prostituting himself for Hollywood fame. The title work, from 2012, offers a similar ambiguity. It’s a photograph of Waters with a cringe-worthy amount of plastic surgery: lip fillers, cheek implants, a face-lift, eye-lifts, and hair implants. “Beverly Hills John” suggests panic at the fading of youth and glory, here remedied grotesquely and unsuccessfully.
Works that deal explicitly with death complement the ungraceful aging of “Beverly Hills John.” In “Grim Reaper” (2014), a photograph of President and Jacqueline Kennedy disembarking Air Force One in Dallas is manipulated to add the harbinger of death, here wearing suit pants and dress shoes and exiting right behind the couple. The theme of death continues with “Stolen Jean Genet” (2014), which imagines a swiped marble headstone, and “R.I.P. Mike Kelley” (2014), a hand-painted cat urn with mini-furniture on top — a fitting tribute to an artist who could easily turn the cute into the semi-grotesque.
Naturally death is accompanied in the exhibition by sex, including a very funny series (Library Science, 2014) of paperback book titles changed to smutty ones. Some Like it Hot becomes Some Like it Hard; My Fair Lady turns into My Foul Lady; and, for the win, Around the World in 80 Days becomes The Adult, Sexual Version of Around the World in 80 Days, an Historical Classic.
At times, Waters’s humor can extend beyond bad taste, seeming cruel. “Separate But Equal” (2014) takes the iconic photograph of segregated drinking fountains and renames them “Gay Married” and “Gay Single,” with “Gay Married” occupying the position of privilege. While the attempted humor is evident, the pain that both segregation and marriage inequality evoke may cause this joke to miss its mark. Waters has always gravitated towards taboos, however; this is no great exception.
Beverly Hills John is not great, maybe not even good, art in and of itself; its interest stems primarily from its relationship to Waters’s larger body of work. But within that context, the exhibition offers enough giggles, chortles, and titters to make it worth a visit, especially for fans of his films.
John Waters: Beverly Hills John continues at Marianne Boesky Gallery (509 W 24th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 14.