Past Exhibitions

John Waters: Change of Life

Exhibition Through January 15, 2006

In a career that now spans forty years, John Waters has moved from the margins of culture to the mainstream, applying his iconoclastic perspective and aesthetic to filmmaking, writing, and now to photography. From October 30, 2005, to January 15, 2006, the Orange County Museum of Art presents John Waters: Change of Life, a retrospective of recent photographic and sculptural works and three early, unreleased films by the maverick filmmaker. Encompassing images from the recognizable to the obscure, John Waters: Change of Life brings Waters's uncensored "dreamland" images out of the cinematic realm and into another cultural domain, offering us an opportunity to explore our most basic human impulses together in public. Waters began producing still photographic works in the early 1990's, scrutinizing videotapes of movies—first his own, and then over-the-top Hollywood movies and forgotten art films that have long fascinated him—and then photographing video images off of his television screen. The hilarious, erotic, rude, revealing and sometimes poignant moments that he captured became the raw material for artworks that Waters dubbed his "little movies." In these novel photographic sequences, Waters skewers cultural symbols and stereotypes, and elaborates on the cultural and subcultural themes that have been central to all his work: race, sex, sanctimony, glamour, class, family, politics, celebrity, religion, the media, and the allure of crime. 

In his artworks, Waters uses still photography to reflect on the visual vocabulary and the emotional and psychological power of filmmaking. The act of extracting images from films that takes place in these photographic works allows Waters to emphasize the multitude of ways in which we respond to both moving and still photographic images. Through his insistent allusions to the editing process, Waters encourages viewers to consider how each of us creates our own personal narratives as we decode, interpret and re-contextualize the plethora of images that constantly bombard us. 

"All movies are too long," Waters has commented. "Let's go back and reduce all movies to just the good parts." His impatience with a drawn-out narrative leads him to reduce an entire film into a single frame that, in his mind, sums up the entire film. This and other "little movies" proscribe Waters's selective vision onto our own, allowing us to look at the films and at ourselves in a new light and from a new perspective. 

Exploring the fetishization of celebrity by fans is another way in which Waters exercises the ability to manipulate images. In Farrah (2000), the hairstyle that inspired a million salon visits is symbolically torn off of the head of the original and pasted atop those of eight other performers, prompting the viewer to contemplate the power of an iconic feature once amplified by the media in a different context. In contrast to this, Grace Kelly's Elbows (1998) calls attention to a feature not normally associated with the actress, though seen as worthy of appreciation and even fetishization by Waters nonetheless. In this way he diverts the viewer's attention to his own particular obsession with finding surprising expressions of beauty in what is often overlooked. 

The increasingly blurred distinction between criminality and celebrity is another personal obsession that surfaces in Waters's photographs. Manson Copies Brad Pitt (2003) juxtaposes an image of Brad Pitt with one of Charles Manson, each sporting similar hairstyles and beards, bringing into question the fine line that emerges between what is real and what is fiction. Questioning the nature of celebrity and fame, Waters is also reminding us that every aspect of human nature holds the potential to become its opposite. 

In addition to approximately 80 photographic and sculptural works, three short films directed by Waters in the 1960's will be publicly shown for the first time on the West Coast. Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), made while Waters was a senior in high school, features Mary Vivian Pearce, Mona Montgomery and Bobby Chappelle in a Theater of the Absurd influenced narrative interspersed with scenes of racial tension and dance. Roman Candles (1966) marks the screen debut of Divine and Mink Stole in a filmic montage of staged tableaux involving sex, drugs, and religion, shown on a screen divided into three parts. In the most narrative of his early films, Eat Your Make-Up (1967), a disturbed couple kidnaps three models, chains them in the woods and forces them to eat makeup and model themselves to death. A highlight of Eat Your Make-Up is a scene in which Waters recreates the historic Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, with Divine playing the role of Jackie Kennedy. All three films will be continuously screened in the gallery space during the exhibition.

In addition to Waters's artworks and early films, the exhibition features an installation by his longtime production designer, Vince Peranio. This pop-up photographic environment includes representations of selected tableaux, objects and images from Waters's home that contextualize his work and suggest the eclectic breadth of visual influences that shape his cinematic mind and photographic eye. 

About the Artist

John Waters emerged as a controversial filmmaker in the late 1960's, when he began producing short films with an entourage of actors and crew known as Dreamland Studios, a diverse group that characterized the marginalized figures of society highlighted in Waters's films. His exaggerated but loving depiction of people living on the fringes of normal American life persisted well into the 1980s and 1990s, when he began producing popular films such as of Hairspray and Serial Mom. The fact that his shock value tactics could withstand his transition from margin to mainstream and that his cultural themes still resonate with audiences worldwide underscores Waters's continuing relevance and iconic status. 

In addition to making films and artworks, Waters has contributed essays and articles to national publications such as Newsweek, Vanity Fair and Vogue. His social commentaries cover a broad range of topics, from bad hair to juvenile delinquency. Waters has published six books: Shock Value, Crackpot, Trash Trio, Director's Cut, Art: A Sex Book, co-authored with Bruce Hainley, and most recently, “Hairspray, Female Trouble and Multiple Maniacs.” His photographic works have been the subject of gallery exhibitions and included in group exhibitions internationally; he is represented in New York by Marianne Boesky Gallery. John Waters was born in 1946 and has lived in Baltimore, Maryland for the majority of his life. 


The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated book published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., including essays by Lisa Phillips and Marvin Heiferman, as well as contributions by Gary Indiana, Brenda Richardson and Todd Solondz, discussing Waters's style and influence not only in film but on contemporary American culture. 


Exhibition Credits

John Waters: Change of Life was organized by New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and co-curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips.


John Waters: Change of Life is made possible through a generous grant from New Line Cinema with additional support from Harvey S. Shipley Miller. 

The Orange County Museum of Art presentation of John Waters: Change of Life is supported by New Line Cinema.

Media sponsorship is provided by KCET, 89.9 FM KCRW, 89.3 KPCC, and OC Weekly.