Dear John

John Waters' gallery show is all flash. Plus: James Gobel's fantasy yarns

John Waters dives into sculpture at Rena Bransten

HAIRY EYEBALL What does it mean to call John Waters' art "bad"? The question is hard to shake while surveying "Rush," the filmmaker and part-time San Francisco resident's fourth show at Rena Bransten Gallery. It's tricky with Waters, whose creative practice has always exulted in its bad taste. He would probably respond to my query with a knowing smile.

Time has certainly been on his side. What was once reviled someday becomes celebrated, and so even Waters' most extreme examples of cinematic filth are now part of the cultural canon. In his post-Hairspray crossover years, Waters has settled into the role of practiced raconteur, having whittled his biographical anecdotes and wry observations into a recombinant set of talking points.

This stand-up-like approach has informed his visual art as well. Waters' early stabs at photography — horizontally grouped freeze-frames from Hollywood classics, obscure gems, and gay porn, all shot from the television screen — riffed on the innate humor of their subjects, further underscoring the awkwardness of each pause through canny juxtaposition.

The photo-collages in "Rush" are more aggressively puerile. Less documents of the chance encounter between a TV set and a camera, they offer up a series of crudely Photoshopped one-liners: a bevy of Hollywood royalty are given hairlips; Charlton Heston as Moses holds a can of soda; Audrey Hepburn's swan-like neck is covered in monstrous hickeys.

The sharper collages — like the series of characters lying in state — elicit a chuckle. The dumber ones recall in their approach Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Gottfried Helnwein's frequently copied, cheesy Hollywood riff on Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Again, I sense Waters would be just as proud having his work compared to Helnwein's as he would to his more obvious precedents in business and in art: Koons and Warhol.

Instead of cardboard Brillo boxes, Waters — or, one presumes, a workshop — has fabricated bigger-than-life versions of an ant trap, a spilled bottle of Rush-brand "liquid incense" (from which the show takes its name), and a tub of the exorbitantly priced facial cream La Mer. There's also an Ike Turner doll, posed on bended knee, holding a smaller marionette of Tina Turner, called "Control.".

The sculptures are by far the smartest works in the show — gaudy, oversized lawn ornaments to hucksterism, the fleeting nature of pleasure, and the futile postponement of time's onward creep through conspicuous consumption. In short, they are monuments to the follies and vanities of the art world itself, which, judging by the show's price list, is willing to pay top dollar for a spanking from John Waters.

For those of us who are simply content with our dog-eared copies of Shock Value and our Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living DVDs, "Rush" is too often like that overturned bottle of poppers: all flash but no high.



While in 77 Geary, head over to Marx & Zavattero for a different but no less trashy example of queer sensibility. James Gobel's yarn, felt, and acrylic paintings construct a rock 'n' roll fantasy camp for bears in which hirsute and chubby fanboys do their best Jem impressions in truly outrageous color combinations. More interesting are Gobel's "couture beanbags," whose doughy amorphousness and "designer" plaid covers evoke the physicality and dress of his painted subjects in a far more tactile manner that's as inviting as it is unsettling. Gobel understands that with subcultures, as with lovers, snuggling can sometimes turn to smothering.


Through July 10, free

Rena Bransten

77 Geary, SF

(415) 982-3292

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