John Waters has something he wants to get off his chests.
To be precise, the Baltimore cult filmmaker and visual artist has something he wants to get off all six of the nude torsos depicted in “Hairball,” a 2004 artwork created by Waters that pays homage to hirsute men.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping of the chest nests in “Hairball” — on view through April 16 at C. Grimaldis Gallery as part of the “The Worst of Waters” exhibit — is the torso in the upper left corner of the frame. It depicts a dense, heart-shaped thicket that stretches nearly shoulder to shoulder on the model.
“Self-adhesive CHEST WIG,” reads an advertisement from sometime in the mid-20th century. “For that macho look.”
Waters can’t remember where he found the ad. But once he saw it, he was mesmerized.
“To me, this is a piece that reflects about how body hair is political and trendy and changes with fashion,” Waters said. “In Burt Reynolds’ day, chest hair was very, very popular. Now, young people shave everything off.”
“The Worst of Waters” teases gallery visitors with a big promise:
“Works never before exhibited in Baltimore,” a news release reads. “The rudest, the hardest to sell, the just plain wrong.”
In case an inattentive reader missed the point, the release says it again: “the bizarre, the absurd and the poorest of tastes.”
That sets a high bar indeed.
The 75-year-old Waters is the man who made the 1972 gross-out movie classic “Pink Flamingos” starring the late, lamented drag queen Divine. Is the artist implying that “The Worst of Waters” contains sights even more offensive than the scene of the performer chowing down on a pile of steaming dog poop?
The mind boggles.
But if “The Worst of Waters” never quite surpasses that storied summit, it isn’t for lack of trying.
Consider, for instance, “15th Station,” the first artwork that viewers see upon entering the gallery. It consists of half a dozen still shots of the Baltimore actor George Figgs portraying a crucified Jesus Christ. A viewer standing in front of the artwork who glances out the gallery’s front door can just glimpse the Basilica of the Assumption on the other side of Charles Street.
“15th Station” is a reference to a Roman Catholic devotional practice known as “Stations of the Cross.” Worshippers recite prayers as they move between 14 stations, each with an artwork depicting the last day of Christ’s life. The stations have names such as, “Jesus is condemned to death” or “Jesus is nailed to the cross.”
“I think of this as the 15th and final station,” Waters said: “‘Jesus vomits on the cross.’ It’s not really sacrilegious because believe me, if you are ever crucified, you will vomit.”
For all his irreverence and the show’s inspired weirdness, Waters is a serious visual artist, and “The Worst of Waters” is a serious show.
The filmmaker creates many pieces by photographing still shots of old movies as they play on his television screen and combining them with items he has found, like the ad for the chest wig. Often, he’ll assemble shots from different movies based on a common theme (for instance, “pimples in movies” and reconstruct them into mock storyboards that send up social norms.)
Though Waters frequently skewers art world pretensions, he is firmly ensconced in the inner circle.
Five years ago, he was invited to participate in the international exhibit that serves as the centerpiece of the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as the Art World Olympics. The following year, the Baltimore Museum of Art organized the first major retrospective of Waters’ artwork ever held in the filmmakers’ home town.
His work also commands serious fees. Prices for the 26 works on view range from $4,500 for the cheeky — literally — 2009 artwork “Backwards Day” featuring a rear view of the late actress Jean Hill wearing an open-in-the-back. blue hospital gown, to $25,000 for “Decorative,” a roach motel so gargantuan it could double as a coffee table.
But despite occasional pieces referencing the filmmaker’s Catholic boyhood, no one would ever mistake Waters for a choir boy.
Two portraits are variations on a theme:
“The Process” features the occultist Robert de Grimston, former leader of The Process Church of the Last Judgment, a group that in the 1980s was wrongly labelled as a Satanic cult whose teachings influenced serial killer Charles Manson.
“Dream Lover” provides a close-up of John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.” Lindh was captured two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“I’ve always been obsessed with him,” Waters said, referring to Lindh. “He was the most hated person in America since [the late atheist] Madelyn Murray O’Hair.”
Not coincidentally, Lindh, like De Grimston, is strikingly good-looking.
“He is not my dream lover,” Waters said, " but he’s someone’s. Is it wrong to think that terrorists are handsome?”
But before a viewer even has time to think about that question, the filmmaker is in pursuit of another sacred cow.
“Necro” sends up popular culture’s obsession with celebrities by featuring film stills of such actors as Joan Crawford and Macaulay Culkin reclining in open caskets, eyes closed and playing possum.
“This piece would look nice in a funeral home,” Waters said. “But what funeral director would have the nerve to hang that on the wall? Does anyone really want to live with a picture of dead movie stars?”
It’s worth pointing out that the celebrities were photographed before the film version of the decomposition process had begun. Though young Culkin has what appears to be boils on his face, the remaining five “corpses” are pristine.
Through the phone line, you can almost hear the filmmaker shrug.
“Well,” Waters said, “I wouldn’t have any problem with it.”
If you go
“The Worst of Waters” highlights works by filmmaker John Waters never before exhibited in Baltimore. Through April 16 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-539-1080.