John Waters causes trouble at the Walker [video]


John Waters has taken over curatorial duties at the Walker Art Center for the "Absentee Landlord" exhibition. Waters says that he thought about casting one of his movies as he organized the collection.  With an irreverent eye, he's paired blue-chip artists with emerging contemporary folks, and made curatorial decisions that both celebrate and make fun of contemporary art. It's a treat, and it calls to question whether more museums will choose to bring in artist/personality/celebrity curators as a way to shake things up and bring in a wider audience. 

One of the major themes of modern and contemporary art of the last century has been about giving the finger to the mainstay artistic institutions. Whether it was DuChamp's fountain (a urinal) or Andy Warhol's soup cans, artists have called into question conventional artistic standards. 

On his media tour Waters spoke of "trouble-makers" to describe artists that have for some reason or other caused a stir in the art world. "I use the term troublemakers -- I use that in a positive way," Waters says. "I think the arts should cause trouble. I mean, Andy Warhol with that soup can put Abstract Expressionists out of business in one night the way Beatles put Motown out of business in one night." 

Ironically, many of the troublemakers end up becoming "blue-chip" artists, their work prized possessions for collectors and museums around the world.  

But can art institutions themselves be troublemakers? In the last four decades, the role of the curator has gained prominence in the art world, so that they themselves often become the "star" just as much as the artists they present.  

And there's a growing trend of using celebrity curators -- people who gained fame for something else who are brought in to curate a museum or gallery. Last year, Shaquille O'Neal curated "Size DOES Matter" at the Flag Art Foundation in Manhattan. In 2006, Toni Morrison was invited to guest curate the Louvre. And romance novelist Danielle Steele has curated more than once at the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco.

For his part, Waters approaches his curation as a troublemaker. Whether it's the video room that doesn't really exist, a display case showing all the receipts used to put the show together, or an audio tour in pig Latin, Waters pokes fun at the hoity-toitiness of the art world while at the same time embracing it. His Pig Latin tour, for example, was an attempt "to comment on people's hatred of impenetrable art talk." He chose to take the secret language so far as to make it impossible to understand -- unless your mother or a childhood friend happened to have taught it to you.

"Can Fred Sandback take a joke? Can Carl Andre laugh?" Waters asks. "Can Yves Klein be in the same room as a Russ Meyer painting? They're both about sex, but can they get along? That's what I was trying to do on this -- to put art together and see if it works."  

His choices include the audacity of placing a de Kooning almost near the floor, on the same wall as a painting made out of menstrual blood. "Usually this would have a whole wall to itself," he says of the de Kooning piece. "To me, it's a little sexist."

If you hate something in the show, Waters says that's a good thing. "There are a few pieces that I at first hated. But I ended up liking the best, and I think that's the one that ends up getting your attention." He uses the example that some people say when they see a piece of art: "Oh, my kid could have done that." His response: "Yeah but he didn't, stupid."  

The show is definitely worth checking out, especially as it looks at how different "troublemakers" have shook things up in different ways over time.  What was outrageous in the mid-20th century may not be as much of a shock these days, but it's fun to look at how earlier artists may have inspired today's avant-garde, and in what ways new contemporary artists are rebelling against their troublemaker forefathers. 

And who knows? Maybe there is a trend starting that sees curation not just as a practice, but as an art itself. Just as Broadway is filled with Hollywood stars and celebrities, perhaps museums are the new frontier for bringing in people that didn't necessarily get training to be curators to try their hand and putting an exhibition together. Lady Gaga curating the MoMa? Only time will tell.  

Check out Waters's introduction and tour below, and definitely check out this unique alternative to the history of contemporary art.