John Waters—filmmaker, writer, artist, and the world’s most beloved pervert—is cherished for his singular ability to blend abjection, gumption, glee, and filth into almost anything he does. While his personal creations revel in messiness, his private art collection, the majority of which he gifted to the Baltimore Museum of Art, is getting the star treatment in a show here, curated by Catherine Opie and Jack Pierson. The exhibition, a celebration of paraphilias, pathos, and beauty, highlights roughly ninety pieces from Waters’s bequest. Included are several works tinged by an air of backroom sex, such as Carl Ostendarp’s Pillow Talk, 1992, a canvas that features a scatological brown smear on a tidy white ground, and Daniel McDonald’s Erik, Piss-Crazed Maniac, 2007, a rendering of a saucer-eyed, Charles Manson–esque face grinning grotesquely behind an elegant panel of bright-yellow stained glass. Celebrity surfaces as a sinister force all over this presentation, especially in Gary Hume’s Michael, 2002, a painting of the King of Pop—whose oversurgerized face, depicted in close-up, feels like a postmortem examination—and in Kathe Burkhart’s Slit: from the Liz Taylor Series (Ash Wednesday), 1992, a portrait of the titular star with her head all stitched up and bandaged.
While fame is toxic, a pure and contagious strain of fandom permeates the show. At one entrance to the exhibition is a cluster of photographs by Diane Arbus, Cecil Beaton, Nan Goldin, and Barry Holniker—images that fix Waters’s world within a deeper countercultural context while acknowledging his taste for decadent glamour. Smaller artworks by Elizabeth Peyton and Andy Warhol—alongside someone’s home address written on a torn piece of paper by Cy Twombly, and a cheeky appropriation of a Damien Hirst “spot painting” by Eric Doeringer—demonstrate Waters’s reverence and healthy disrespect for haute culture. The obviously intimate attachment Waters has to the art he’s brought into his home makes “Coming Attractions” a declaration of both transgression and love.