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Hollywood Babylon 

In recent times, the postmodern art world has become obsessed with mass communications. That's fair enough, considering that TV, movies and electronic media have become at least as big a part of our environment as nature itself. Indeed, while the natural world erodes, Hollywood explodes; adolescents and perpetual adolescents like Britney and Tom Cruise loom ever larger as vast forests go up in smoke and Alaska bakes in unprecedented heatwaves.

These are strange days -- so strange that it's almost tempting to think that someone as zany as John Waters might actually have something to say about it. Yet, having gained art-world notoriety for his collages of movie scenes photographed from a TV set, the man who galvanized America with his epochal gross-out flick, Pink Flamingos, seems somewhat less incisive when he wades into the tepid tides of postmodernism. Apparently, the loss of his muse, the unforgettable Divine, was an irreparable blow.

Julia, a head shot of Julia Roberts paired with a '50s horror movie monster, is one of his more successful efforts. Here Roberts' vast, inexorable grin is contrasted with the visage of a reptilian humanoid leering like a Gila monster in a business suit. In a text box quote, Roberts downplays her beauty, commenting that she thought she looked "like somebody stuck a coat hanger in my mouth," which resonates neatly with the cheesy horror character who really does look like somebody stuck a coat hanger in his mouth. Waters says this illustrates that our view of beauty is conditioned by the mood of the times, implying that in the '50s she might have used those chops to land a role in a monster flick. Well, OK. Regardless of her merits as a person and actress, Roberts' big grin does seem overexposed if not downright vapid, so score one for Waters. But isn't it also rather petty, or even ungentlemanly if not downright bitchy, to make such a big deal out of something like that? Doesn't he have anything better to do?

If Roberts is, for Waters, an aurora borealis of incisors, the mentally challenged fare no better in his Retard collage of movie scenes purporting to show how Hollywood makes the mentally impaired look ... well, downright dumb. Similarly, in Hot Seat, he assembles cliched electric chair scenes -- close-ups of a clock, a telephone, a prisoner strapped to the Chair, overanxious executioners and then the writhing body and smoking electrodes -- to convey a sense of what he calls "Hollywood's version of an S&M bar."

It's the Waters world view with a postmodern twist. But where postmodern art typically tries to illustrate some pedantic critique or pronouncement, Waters merely trivializes the inane. Sneaky JFK is a categorical exception, a statuette of the late president in one of his wife's evening dresses. And what's the point? Apparently there is none -- cross-dressing was one of the very few things that JFK was never accused of. Here Waters' fantasizing finally triumphs over pretense, and yikes! -- where's Divine when you really need her?

More believable is Tony Scherman's painting, J. Edgar Hoover in Drag at Simonne Stern. Unlike JFK, the ultra-right-wing Hoover was reputedly gay -- he and FBI assistant director Clyde Tolson were a deadly duo for decades -- and a cross-dresser to boot. But in D.C., Hoover had the dirt on everybody, so nobody could blab, at least not while he was still in office. Scherman's other subjects are also famous, much-photographed personages, but he says the point of his eerie portraits is to reveal the spirit or soul that the photograph purportedly steals (if indeed there is one). And his dark encaustics really do evoke spectral after-images, recalling Ivan Albright's eerily decadent figures or the late Noel Rockmore's ghostly images of local jazz musicians. In fact, Scherman's take on Marilyn evokes Rockmore's portraits of female blues singers like Blue Lu Barker or Sweet Emma Barrett, images in which too-mortal flesh is imbued with an eerie luminescence like cool, cosmic light emanating from the inert clay of creation. Not all are equally haunting or successful, but his premise is interesting. Returning the soul to the image is like putting the genie back in the bottle -- not especially easy, but an effort that may well be long overdue.

click to enlarge John Waters' wafer-thin statement on beauty, as seen in this manipulation of a photo of Julia Roberts, begs the question: doesn't he have anything better to do?
  • John Waters' wafer-thin statement on beauty, as seen in this manipulation of a photo of Julia Roberts, begs the question: doesn't he have anything better to do?
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