Is it a hairdo or a hair don’t?
The flesh-colored photos at C. Grimaldis Gallery offer a study of men’s chest hair, in varying degrees of density. In the upper left corner is a possible solution for those who don’t have much: a heart-shaped tuft of faux hair designed to fit any size chest.
“FOR THAT MACHO LOOK!” reads the label for a 70s-era gift item that promised to make anyone instantly as hirsute as the late Burt Reynolds: “THE SELF ADHESIVE CHEST WIG!”
From the man who brought attention to hair hoppers and Hairspray!, this is “Hairball,” one of 26 works by writer, filmmaker and visual artist John Waters, now on display in an exhibition that opened last night at the Charles Street gallery.
Grimaldis and Waters call the show “The Worst of Waters” and say it includes “Works never before exhibited in Baltimore. The rudest. The hardest to sell. The just plain wrong.”
The title makes it sound as if Waters is holding a rummage sale and presenting the least successful examples of his decades-long output as a visual artist, but that’s misleading. While the show does include some works that haven’t sold, it’s really an exhibit about changing tastes, fashions and mores, from the man Town & Country magazine put on its cover last fall as an acknowledged arbiter of good taste.
This is not the bottom of Waters’ barrel, in other words. It may be the bottom of everyone else’s — which, from Waters’ point of view, has always provided the best subject matter anyway.
“There is no such thing as the worst of Waters,” the artist said yesterday. “It’s work that is exactly what I said: The hardest to sell, the just plain wrong and rude. Truth in advertising. That’s all.”
That’s different from saying it’s the worst work he’s ever done.
“The worst, in the world of John Waters, can be the best,” he said. It’s “another way to tell a story. It’s about writing. All my things are about writing.”
“Hairball” is a good example of a work that makes a comment on a social trend, but didn’t sell.
Waters said it’s a reference to the days when Burt Reynolds was popular (think: Gunsmoke, Dan August, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit) and thick chest hair was considered so desirable that a chest wig wasn’t unthinkable. “At a certain time, that was the sexiest thing. Burt Reynolds.”
Today, he said, “all the young people are shaved, but it’s coming back…It’s amazing to me how body hair can go in and out of fashion. That’s what that’s about.”
On his gallery’s website, owner Constantine Grimaldis calls Waters’ show “an alarming and insightful voyage into the mind of one of Baltimore’s most creative legends.”
By reconstructing film strips and appropriating everyday objects, Waters “examines the distance between fine art, entertainment and the human experience,” Grimaldis says. “Recurring themes of humor and tragedy serve to disrupt our presumptions, becoming self-reflective agents of cock-eyed truths. The bizarre, the absurd, and the poorest of tastes act as entry points to fully unpacking Waters’ perspective.”
By exploring subjects that others don’t, Waters “empowers the often unseen and overlooked,” directing the viewers’ gaze to “raw depictions of queer identity, racial inequality and class dysphoria,” Grimaldis adds. “This exhibition highlights the ‘worst’ as an exclamation point…a moment to feel untethered, to bare our teeth and to howl with glee.”
And so, visitors to last night’s opening got to see Waters’ take on some of the quirks and foibles of the world, things people aren’t necessarily proud of but that are part of their lives anyway. As he always does, Waters grabs society’s dirty laundry, blows it up in size and puts it front and center.
The show includes a giant Roach Motel (“Roaches check in, but they don’t check out!”), a montage of geezers (“Old Chickens Make Good Soup.”), celebrities in coffins (“Necro,” or “The Undertaker and His Pals.”), and more.
Many of the works make reference to movies by Waters and others.
The piece “Backwards Day,” for example, presents scenes from Waters’ film “Desperate Living,” in which the late Edith Massey as Queen Carlotta decreed that everyone in Mortville walk backwards and dress backwards.
“That’s me!” said Susan Lowe, a local artist who starred as Mole McHenry in the film and proudly pointed out her back in one of the photos. Additional backs in “Backwards Day” belong to Mink Stole; the late Liz Renay and the late Jean Hill.
Other works focus on habits and practices that people have had over the years, faux pas they committed or blunders they made.
“Guzzle” is a comment on drinking, with two bottles marked LIQUOR along with a drawing of a bottle with a firecracker inside.
“Framing Problems” is a series of photos of a woman’s neck with her head cut out of the frame – underscoring the importance of sobriety and/or corrected vision while taking photographs.
“Sexual Attraction” shows two male faces framing a drawing of a Rube Goldberg-esque device, labeled Exploring the Science of Sexual Attraction.
“Toilet Hands” consists of black and white images that recall the 1950s, when parents made their children show the fronts and backs of their hands when they left the bathroom, to make sure they washed them.
Two works, “16 Days, 2003,” and “35 Days, 2003,” are pages from the calendars that Waters famously keeps, with tasks and appointments crossed off as he completed them or when they ended.
Though best known for movies such as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, and books such as Shock Value and Role Models, Waters has created visual art for decades. His works in photography and sculpture have been shown at the Swiss Institute and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York; the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and the Orange County Museum of Art in California.
C. Grimaldis Gallery, started in 1977, is Baltimore’s oldest contemporary gallery, specializing in postwar American and European art.
Waters, wearing all black except for a bright orange face mask during the opening, said many of the photos on display are shots taken off a TV screen with a 35 millimeter camera. He said the corner image in Hairball came from the package for the Chest Wig, which he purchased at a novelty shop. He explained that some of his creations came in editions of five to 10, and the ones on view are the ones that haven’t sold. Prices range from $4,500 (“Backwards Day”) to $25,000 (the jumbo-sized roach motel.)
The opening drew a Who’s Who of Waters admirers, happy to hang out with the artist for two hours. In addition to Lowe, visitors included Sascha Wolhandler and Steve Suser, who used to run Sascha’s Café and Sascha’s Catering on the same block as Grimaldis Gallery; Dreamlanders Pat Moran and Chuck Yeaton, who plan to be buried with Waters at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Towson; Maryland Institute College of Art president Samuel Hoi; AIDS Action Baltimore co-founder and president Lynda Dee; art patron Tom Williams, half of the couple that commissioned a mural by GAIA of Divine on an end-of-row house in Mount Vernon; TV executive Mary Ellen Iwata; sound designer Otts Munderloh; artist Scott Ponemone and architect Gary Anderson. There was hair in every shade of the color wheel.
People formed a line outside the building before the opening, and everyone wore a face mask inside. The gallery at 523 North Charles Street was so full that, except for the masks, it seemed like an event from before the pandemic. Grimaldis said he was encouraged by the turnout and the spillover activity on Charles Street: “Let’s hope it stays this way.”
“The Worst of Waters” runs until April 16. Gallery hours at Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The peripatetic Waters is headed to Sony Hall in New York on April 22 for a spoken-word show marking his 76th birthday that day and to an Easter Egg Hunt honoring Massey, who played “the Egg Lady” in Pink Flamingos, on April 16 at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California. Postponed for the past two years, the Easter Egg event will be hosted by singer Fred Schneider of The B-52s and includes a screening of Cry-Baby and a musical performance by Kate Clover.
Waters has another appearance lined up in Baltimore: a signing for his next book and first novel, “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, on Sunday, May 15 at 5 p.m.