When I first moved to Baltimore from Chicago, the questions most often posed by friends were regarding John Waters and the depiction of Baltimore in his films. At the time, the references were lost on me, but it didn’t take long for me to discover that the renowned director, celebrated for campy and at times raunchy films set in his hometown, is synonymous with the city.
Prior to the BMA’s Campaign for Art, the Museum’s collection included just one work by Waters. Dorothy Malone’s Collar, a photomontage from 1996, is a quintessential example of Waters’ early foray into appropriation art. The work, which resembles a horizontal photo strip, begins with an image of an eponymous title screen followed by nine stills of actress Dorothy Malone sporting her signature upturned collar. The artist obtained each image by scouring hours of film, pausing the movie, and taking a picture of the frozen scene on his television screen. The format proved a natural means for Waters to share his sharp observation, wit, and love of film with an expanded audience.
In 2010, contemporary photography collectors Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker gave the Museum John Jr., 2009. Once again, Waters found inspiration in another artist’s work. The source is a pastel portrait by a respected Baltimore portraitist who was commissioned by Waters’ parents to capture the artist as a boy. Waters took a picture of the pastel and manipulated it ever so slightly by using Photoshop to add a hint of the trademark pencil mustache that he has worn for most of his adult life. Through this simple gesture the artist unites his juvenile and mature selves. Considering the resulting image, it is just as easy to imagine that Waters was a precocious child as it is to see that the child in him lives on.
In 2015 a donation from the BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art facilitated the acquisition of one of Waters’ most recent works, Kiddie Flamingos, 2014. Like Dorothy Malone’s Collar and John Jr., the work grew out of another artwork—the artist’s notorious film Pink Flamingos, 1972. The movie, which put Waters on the map as “The Pope of Trash,” quickly became a cult classic and continues to shock viewers. In Kiddie Flamingos, children perform a table reading of Waters’ adaptation of Pink Flamingos for a general audience. Seated in front of a backdrop featuring a trailer home, the kids wear clothing, wigs, and accessories that evoke the unforgettable characters of the original film. Waters’ distinctive voice delivers stage directions off camera while the children earnestly perform their roles in this remake of the battle for the title of “the filthiest people alive.” Those who have seen the original film will recognize that, though purged of its obscenity, the new script artfully alludes to the indelible scenes that make Pink Flamingos scandalous to this day.
John Waters’ reputation precedes him and in many circles he is regarded as the face of Baltimore. It is a fitting tribute to the local icon that two of his works joined the BMA’s collection through the Museum’s Campaign for Art.
John Jr. is on view through May 8, 2016 in New Arrivals: Maryland Artists.
Kiddie Flamingos will be running on a continuous loop in the Museum’s Black Box from September 21, 2016 to January 22, 2017.