REVIEW: Absentee Landlord

John Waters takes over the Walker

John Waters is 65, but given the way he gleefully bounded through a preview of his new “devious intervention” at Walker Art Center, he might as well have been a teenager. The man couldn’t stop to explain a curatorial selection without getting excitedly ahead of himself. That famed sheepish grin was nearly constant beneath that even more famed sleazy moustache.

Of course, it’s his show. He should be excited. For Absentee Landlord, Waters was given full access to Event Horizon, a two-year-long, greatest-hits display of the Walker’s vast permanent collection. He could rearrange the artwork however he wished. He could sneak in some of his own work. He was even allowed to import a few “party crashers,” pieces on loan from elsewhere that Waters was just dying to see hang alongside Walker staples.

Pranks were expected. Most anticipated Waters, a filmmaker renowned for his devotion to trash, tackiness, and sleaze, to take the Walker’s haughtiness down a peg. There were rumors of translating the museum’s audio tours into Pig Latin (this happened). There were rumors of piping in the sounds of car crashes and tire squeals into the parking garage (this did not). But it’s important to note that the show isn’t a water balloon aimed at the stuff artists get away with these days. Actually, it’s an open and earnest celebration of that stuff—the wonderfully dubious, impossibly witty, so-simple-yet-brilliant art that tends to make people mad.

A good deal of the show, Waters said, is made up of “pieces that I at first hated.” For instance, the exhibition opens with a large set of Venetian blinds dropped onto the floor, its slats fanning out a bit, accordion-style. That’s it. Waters’s initial reaction: “This was even too much for me.” But its surprising elegance and in-your-face insistence on being art, he says, has changed the way that he now perceives window dressings out in the world.

And so again and again the show presents objects that are more than what they appear to be. Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s “Empty Room” (literally an empty room cluttered with workmen’s tools)? Those are all actually hand-carved and painted polyurethane sculptures. The black rectangle painted on a yellowing swatch of paper? That’s the world’s slowest moving film, starring age stains, which take decades to creep across “the screen.” That red painting by Jess Van Der Ahe? That was made with the artist’s menstrual blood. Because of its material, it’s doomed to disintegrate, Waters says. But it hangs beside a blue chip de Kooning, whose value—and unflattering rendition of a woman—will never fade.

If you’re already skeptical of the Walker, or contemporary art in general, this stuff might not win you over. You could, possibly, find vindication in Waters’s own satirical works that he’s sneaked into the show. (A photo of a flower squirts viewers with water if they cross a line of black tape—a swipe at museums’ obsessions with keeping art-gazers at a safe distance.) But these gags aren’t fighting against the art world’s occasional absurdity. They’re joining in the fun. And the best way to see this show is through the eyes of Waters himself—to open your mind up, let the troublemakers in, and simply delight in their power to create perception-altering reactions.

Absentee Landlord
Through March 4, 2012