In a new role as museum tour guide, John Waters was smart, charming, candid and completely inoffensive while introducing  "Absentee Landlord," a three-gallery exhibition he's organized for Walker Art Center, where it will run through March 4, 2012.

Waters expressed astonishment at the gems he found in the Walker's collection, noting that few other institutions would have so many things that appeal to his iconoclastic taste. Among his discoveries is "Meat Joy," an underground 1964 film that precedes Lady Gaga's meat-dress fetishes by decades. It records a cheerfully bacchanalian performance by Carolee Schneemann and friends who roll about, rubbing each other with raw chicken, fish, sausages and wet paint. 

"I couldn't believe the Walker had it in the archives," Waters said.


John Waters photo by Greg Gorman, provided by Walker Art Center


Among his favorite artists: Photographer Karlheinz Weinberger, represented by a bunch of hilariously timely crotch-shot  fashion photos; and Peter Fischli and David Weiss, a pair of Swiss subversives whose Walker installations include a nearly empty room littered with cans, brushes and slabs of plaster. Another installation, by Gregory Green, simulates the lair of a mad bomber, cluttered with glue, drills, duct tape and other innocent looking junk capable of mayhem in the wrong hands.

During a later Q&A session, Waters talked about the difficulty of doing art about tragedies such as  9/11 or the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. (The exhibit includes a large Waters piece that juxtaposes images of the World Trade Center attack with stills from the campy 1956 sci-fi movie "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.") Waters said the emotional charge surrounding the events changes over time but artists have to hit the right psychological pitch. Then riffing on the shoe-bomber, he winced about the guy's bad haircut and the wires sticking out of his shoes.

"They don't train them very well," he said. "They need fashion lessons." 

One point of the show, he said, was to subvert all the conventions of museum installations: the audio guides (he did his in pig latin), the buttons that prove you've paid admission (his say "trouble maker"), the way all the art is hung 58 inches on center  (he hung a Willem de Kooning drawing at ankle height), the warnings not to get too close to REALLY IMPORTANT ART (cross the line to look at one of his photos and it squirts water at you).

The show is a mishmash of classic 1950s-70s modernism and contemporary socio-political commentary. There's nothing campy about it, he said, nor is any of the art bad. The artists are "all brilliant in a way. I look up to every artist in the show," he said.

His one piece of  serious advice: He hates it when artist friends give him art and then get  sulky when he doesn't hang it.

"Never give anyone art unless you know they collect it," he said.

Waters spent about a year putting the show together in consultation with two Walker staffers: chief curator Darsie Alexander, a pal from Baltimore where he lives, and Elizabeth Carpenter who oversees the Walker's collection. The only big glitch was that Minneapolis city officials nixed his plan to run, in the museum's parking garage, audio tapes of car crashes. So  they play  in the elevators and entrance halls instead. Bummer.

Click here to see a brief video of Waters' guided tour.

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