John Waters Dishes on His Ultra-Queer Baltimore Museum of Art Retrospective

“If you run a museum, you have to be intellectual and trashy.”

While the Baltimore-born John Waters may be best known for hysterically subversive films like Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, and mainstream breakout Hairspray (which spawned a Tony-winning Broadway musical, movie musical, and live NBC TV musical), and books Role Models and Carsick, he’s also carved out a lesser-known side career as fine—albeit trashy as ever—artist.

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s new exhibition, John Waters: Indecent Exposure, is his first major artwork retrospective and features over 160 items including photographs, manipulated images, sculptures, and multimedia.

To get the scoop on the show, which runs through January 6, 2019, and will go on to be installed at Columbus, Ohio’s Wexner Center for the Arts in February, NewNowNext had a chat with the queer icon.

Courtesy of the artist

I understand that it took four years for this retrospective to happen. How did it come together?

The curator at the BMA, Kristen Hileman, curated it. We built a model, hung the show, she picked the work she thought should be in it, and I agreed. She gets it. If you run a museum you have to be intellectual and trashy, which is a hard thing to put together.

Since your artworks get bought by private collectors, were there any items you were surprised to see again?

I would be surprised if they wouldn’t lend them, which I understand because I’m an art collector, too. I hate it when museums call and ask you to loan something. You have to take it off the wall, but I do it. The surprise would maybe be that they bought it in the first place.

Courtesy of the artist

What is the queerest item in the show?

Maybe “12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot,” except the asshole photos weren’t all taken from gay porn… or maybe they were! How many straight porn movies have close-ups of male assholes? Not many. I have another print that says, “Gay Is Not Enough.”

Has anyone stolen your art during previous shows?

No, but my artworks have been destroyed when idiots jump over or bang into them. I always think, “Why don’t they have to buy it like in an antique shop, you broke it you bought it?” In the art world, I guess they don’t do that.

Beyond the Wexner, what other venues would you love this show to be in?

The Louvre [laughs]. It wouldn’t have to go anywhere else.

Do you have any inclination to work in more mediums? Say, pottery?

Pottery—I would be really bad at that because I’m not a ceramicist. I was a keynote speaker at a ceramicist convention one year. God knows why they picked me, but they did. I know they call each other “mud people” with fondness, so I did bring up that term.

How would you feel about a movie based on your life, and who would you like to see cast as you?

There have been a couple of people who optioned it, and it never happened. I hope it happens after I’m dead so I don’t have to deal with it. If it’s older me, Steve Buscemi, and if younger, Matthew Gray Gubler has always said he’s wanted to. He’s more handsome than I ever was, but he could easily be good.

Courtesy of the artist

One politics question: who would make a better SCOTUS judge—Brett Kavanaugh or Pink Flamingos’ Babs Johnson?

Well, I think neither really. Babs convicted people of asshole-ism. There are so many people that could be convicted of asshole-ism today that her courtroom would be overloaded. But I don’t have any political art in my show, because it instantly dates it.

What do you hope ultimately comes out of this BMA retrospective?

I don’t know. It’s a new way to see all my work at once, even for me because when you have an art show, usually someone buys it or it goes into the gallery’s storage after. It never comes back to you, so I haven’t seen a lot of these pieces, and they’ve never been together, ever. So what I hope comes of it is a whole bunch of new people come to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.