John Waters: Unwatchable

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By David D'Arcy

"The art world needs satirists like John Waters."

Given the prices that art brings these days, and the reverence paid to art (sometimes exceeded by the reverence paid to the pursuit and purchase of art), the art world needs satirists like John Waters. Unwatchable runs through Sunday at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea (535 West 22nd Street). Waters uses the contemporary art vocabularies of photo-collage and found objects to do what Waters has done for decades - to mock propriety, pop culture and snob culture in the name of fun and in the name of freedom.

Once again, Waters is targeting consumer culture, and reminding us that it has become a structure of consciousness. (Being reminded by him brings some spark to the obvious point.) At first glance, it looks as if his framed images are another version of the ready-made - idiotic mass-produced slogans and images from tabloids that, by their very silliness, become observations on themselves when put in a frame.

9/11 images of a burning World Trade Center are placed next to stills from a 1960s science fiction film that shows a flying saucer crashing into the Washington Monument. The film was one of Waters's favorites, he says. The fantasy film of the youth that Waters can never regain becomes the nightmare come true. And we thought those movies were nothing but escapism.

Most of the show is entertaining rather than sinister, but no less political. Waters takes John Walker Lindh, the convert to Islam whose conviction was meant to be a victory in the "war on terror," and eroticizes him in a piece called Dream Lover. Michael Jackson and Charles Manson are reduced to two rubber children on the floor competing for attention. You don't know whether to pick them up or kick them. But it's art, so you don't touch.

Censorship, in case you haven't guessed, is a favorite Waters theme. Why not? He's seen enough of it firsthand; we know there's more than a joke in his film stills from which cigarettes have been slashed out of the pictures. What will the censors think of next? A lot of this kind of satire can seem sophomoric, but Waters brings a wry depth of experience to the world of censorship and pomposity that he's trashing. He's been there.

I spoke to John Waters last month on the eve of the enfant terrible's 60th birthday. He wouldn't discuss the new film that he's writing, but he was eager to talk about his art. Each work in the show is in five editions. Unwatchable also has a published catalog, available soon from D.A.P.

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