Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

She Shoulda Said ‘No!’ was a 1949 exploitation film in the “Reefer Madness” mold, designed to warn red-blooded, young Americans about the moral rot, social deviancy and sexual degeneracy that comes with using drugs. In it, a young woman’s experiments with weed lead her into a wayward spiral of selling drugs, losing her job and promiscuity, her moral downfall pushing her brother to suicide. Only after cleaning up in jail and collaborating with authorities can she right her way in life.

For his photographic piece “Shoulda!”, filmmaker, artist, author and Baltimore citizen John Waters uses the film’s title card as a lead-in to a series of head shots of women who possibly made a few bad decisions in their lives: Whitney Houston, Anna Nicole Smith, Princess Diana, Patsy Cline and Amy Winehouse. The initial response to the piece is that wincing shame that comes with getting the punchline to an uncomfortable joke. What immediately follows, however, are more knotty feelings and stories. Sure, it’s easy to suggest that Houston or Winehouse shoulda just said no to drugs and alcohol, but people have problems doing that even when they don’t live in fame’s sniper crosshairs. By the time the brain starts wondering if the piece is asking us if we should blame these women for the tabloid deaths that befell them, “Shoulda!” has evolved into a touching meditation.

Touching probably isn’t the word that springs to mind when thinking about Waters’ work. “Shocking” typically is. For more than 50 years, Waters’ movies, books, one-man touring Christmas specials for people who hate the holidays, television appearances, interviews and even the impromptu, quick exchange of hellos you might have when running into him at the Club Charles or the dear, departed Atlantis have been the stuff of ribald outlandishness.

“Bad taste” is his ostensible métier. His cinematic calling card is a film that ends with an infamous scene of coprophagia. His books have explored his complicated relationship with former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten and purveyors of extreme pornography. It’s no coincidence that the mainstreaming of Waters’ films and celebrity coincides with the emergence and rise of the internet’s bull market, where anti-bourgeois “bad taste” ivied into just another consumable good. What was once culturally transgressive in a John Waters movie is probably something being Snapchatted right now. Today, in the Venn diagram of “Porn You Didn’t Know Exists” and “Things That Make Your Mom Laugh,” their overlap is populated by one person: the Prince of Puke, the Pope of Trash, the People’s Pervert, Mr. John Waters.

The above infodump is necessary for orienting a visit to “John Waters: Indecent Exposure,” his career retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, because if all you’re seeing is the superficial eccentricity—the ostensibly weird—then you’re missing the profound emotional intelligence and intellectual savvy that runs through everything he does like a moral lodestar.

Indecent Exposure” brings together 160 works, ranging from when his visual art production began in earnest in the early 1990s up to the present. Popular culture is his subject, the cinematic storytelling of image sequencing his overwhelming strategy, his own photos of others’ films his primary media and a deep love for the lives lived in society’s fringes a recurring theme. It’s a funny, entertaining show by any measure, and, if you give yourself over to it, disarmingly profound.

At 72, Baltimore’s favorite son may have matured into its funny uncle, but if all you’re seeing is his wit you’ll miss what makes Waters’ entire oeuvre so vital. He is, hands down, the most radical humanist raised a Catholic since Pier Paolo Pasolini.

“Beverly Hills John” by John Waters. Image via the BMA.
“Beverly Hills John” by John Waters. Image via the BMA.

Yes, the humor is what’s going to grab the attention first. “Beverly Hills John” is one of three photos that greet “Indecent Exposure” visitors, and it’s a hoot. It’s a fairly standard publicity head shot of Waters seated at a table in a snazzy sport coat and white Oxford, one arm extended across the tabletop, the other bent with a hand raised to his face. But that face: Waters’ familiar visage has been digitally manipulated into a caricature of extreme plastic surgery–forehead tightened, eyebrows raised and thinned, cheekbones accentuated, lips plumped, smile lines erased. It’s creepy—and hilarious.

Nearby, the photograph “Loser’s Gift Basket” pokes fun at the glamorous swag that corporate sponsors donate to award shows to pass along to winners. Waters imagines what people who didn’t win a statuette might take home: a carton of Pall Malls, a canned ham, jock itch spray, a gift certificate for a 90-day stay in the Betty Ford Center and, saddest of all, a Yanni CD.

It’s possible to walk through “Indecent Exposure” getting drunk on such immediate, mischievous humor: “Children Who Smoke” so seamlessly adds cigarettes to a number of film stills featuring recognizable child stars that you’ll pause for a moment, wondering how you somehow missed that episode of “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show” where the Beav and Opi fired one up. Waters offers his idea for political sloganeering in his “Campaign Button” photograph, which invites people to “have sex in a voting booth” in patriotic red, white and blue.

Even when Waters starts to gets a bit more conceptual, it’s done with an impudent streak. Toward the exhibition’s end is a NSFW gallery that includes a coffee table-sized sculpture of a spilled bottle called “Rush,” the name brand of the inhalant better known as poppers that have been a gay party drug for decades—the pop art celebration of a mass-produced item as ubiquitous as Coke bottles for a specific community. “Secret Movie” is a tall, square white column that kinda looks an Ann Truitt-ish minimalist sculpture. Atop Waters’ piece, out of reach without a ladder, is a print from one of three movies, known only to Waters and exhibit curator Kristine Hileman, sworn to secrecy. In an exhibition littered with Waters’ appropriation of film images, he’s keeping this one to himself. And you totally want to know what it is. (My guess for what one of those three films may be: Mai Zetterling’s criminally under-seen “Night Games from 1966.)

Both “Secret Movie” and “Rush” provide entryways into the deeper layers than run through Waters’ works. “Rush” is a bravura metonym for a history rarely told, much less acknowledged. As Sussex University history professor Lucy Robinson told The Independent in 2016: “If you trace the bottle of poppers through late 20th-century history, you trace the legacies of gay culture on popular culture in the 20th century… We wouldn’t have had rave, disco or club culture as we know it today without the gay community.” “Secret Movie” is an outright slapstick comment on one of the few ways to hide something in this tell-all 21st century: keep it out of reach.

The untold and unknown histories taking place around us, the invasiveness of public curiosity and personal desire: these are some of the political concerns that Waters has wrestled with in his storytelling efforts from his early films through his contemporary visual art. Yes, he’s framed such political—and moral—awareness through his own sincere love for the ostensible outsider, but at the heart of that sincerity is a humanist who has witnessed firsthand how the lives of people not accepted by the monoculture of polite, mainstream society can play out: freckled with substance abuse, crime, indigency and violence.

Waters’ movies celebrated such narratives to make those hidden stories seen; his visual art more slyly excoriates the culture that deems somebody an outcast in the first place. Circle back to “Beverly Hills John,” the photo that imagines Waters with an extreme makeover. It’s hung next to two other imagined cosmetic surgery jobs: “Justin’s Had Work” and “Reconstructed Lassie,” which imagine what pop-star Justin Bieber and, yes, celebrity dog Lassie might look like after going under the knife. They’re hilarious to behold, but what’s shocking about them isn’t how they look, but feeling all too familiar with a culture in which a dog or young person needs to be cosmetically improved.

“Brainiac” may be “Indecent Exposure’s” most quietly savage piece of commentary. It’s a fake cover to a tabloid called Brainiac that treats posh literary figures—writer Renata Adler, art critic Hilton Kramer, American food writing doyenne M.F.K. Fisher—with National Enquirer-ish sensationalism. Joan Didion is imagined to have hit 250 pounds. The inhumanly prolific Joyce Carol Oates is revealed to have writer’s block. A cover teaser promises nude photos of poet W.H. Auden inside. It’s hilarious, and fearlessly spotlights the class condescension that divides people into those that both usually appear in tabloids and those who read them. Because, really: You know who says they wouldn’t pick up and leaf through a weekly promising pics of Auden’s, uh, vertical man? Liars.

Not every one of the 160 works in “Indecent Exposure” contains as many richly layered ideas and stories as “Brainiac,” but it’s a show that rewards that level of close looking and thinking. (If you want a more art-historical approach for thinking about “Indecent Exposure,” pick up the catalog in the gift shop for curator Hileman’s essay, which provides the finest context for understanding how Waters fits into the contemporary art spectrum yet written.) Remain open to where Waters may be leading you, because even when you think you’ve found that elusive something hiding just beneath his works’ satirical surface, something else may surface.

“Shoulda!” by John Waters. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“Shoulda!” by John Waters. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Some film buffs will know that “She Shoulda Said ‘No!’” starred Lila Leeds, a Lana Turner-lookalike who was picked up for smoking weed with Robert Mitchum and spent 60 days in jail, making “Shoulda” an exploitation film actually exploiting her notoriety. Many of Mitchum’s career-defining roles lay ahead of him, and he steadily worked just about until he passed in 1997. Leeds appeared, uncredited, in one more film before leaving the industry, though she remained an infamous curiosity for the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s as she bounced in and out of trouble with the law during her probation. She turned to singing in nightclubs, and her resulting Midwest touring led to her being banned from California for probation violation. She married a bandleader, who got her addicted to heroin. She disappeared from the Times radar for a bit, only to reappear in 1974, when she was found as an ordained minister working with a Los Angeles mission. Headline: “Ex-Bad Girl’ Turns to God.”

The entirety of her 1999 obituary in the Los Angeles Times reads: “Leeds, Lila, 71, of Canoga Park, artist and writer. Pierce Bros.-Praiswater Mortuary, Canoga Park.”

So while, yes, in his “Shoulda!” Waters borrows the scandalous patina of the bygone exploitation flick as a way to think about a few contemporary fallen stars, I also kinda think he’s, in his own over-the-top understated way, elevating Leeds to their stature. After all, she’s another everyday outsider—one of the freaks, weirdos, the Others—who maybe chose a different path. And if Waters sees a human story worth cherishing that would otherwise become a forgotten footnote, may we all be so unclean.

“John Waters: Indecent Exposure” runs through January 6, 2019, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. On Nov. 1, Waters discusses his work with curator Kristen Hileman in an artist conversation at the museum, followed by a book signing. The museums screens an 18-hour marathon of Waters films Nov. 9-10.