VISUAL ARTS | John Waters’s “Absentee Landlord” enlivens the Walker Art Center


Enlisting cult filmmaker John Waters to curate a “devious intervention” into the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection is a gimmick—and in this case, I mean that as high praise. Waters is more honest than most about the fact that contemporary art positively thrives on gimmicks.

Lucio Fontana slashing a canvas? What a cheap gimmick. Claes Oldenburg creating a bunch of giant stuffed french fries falling out of a bag? Gimmickry through and through. And there those two piece are, next to one another in the gallery. French fries and a slit—is that a visual euphemism? Waters thinks so, and he said as much in a Friday morning tour of his show Absentee Landlord. (The title refers to Waters’s vision of the curator as a “landlord” arranging works that may be strange, so to speak, bedfellows.)

The show is a most welcome reinvigoration of Event Horizon, the ongoing display of the Walker’s permanent collection. Waters’s attitude towards contemporary art is one of irreverent adoration, which may be the best possible way to approach a field that can be both exhilaratingly daring and teeth-grindingly pretentious.

Waters’s approach is apparent immediately at the exhibit’s threshold, where one is greeted with a set of Venetian blinds lying on the floor. Waters said he likes the idea that people might mistake Gedi Sibony’s The Middle of the Outskirts for something that the Walker forgot to pick up—and that afterwards, “they’ll never look at vertical blinds the same way again.”

Immediately behind Sibony’s blinds are a pair of video rooms—except one really isn’t. It’s Waters’s own Faux Video Room, a piece created as a play on the idea that a video room is just something you need to have; it doesn’t matter what’s actually in it. Open the curtain, and you’ll find only a flat wall with iPod speakers playing a muffled soundtrack.

That sensibility enlivens the whole show, as it enlivens the best contemporary art: a willingness to question assumptions, but with affection rather than superciliousness. Absentee Landlord presents iconic works in a new context—oh, is that a Kandinsky down there almost on the floor?—while still giving them room to breathe. Visit Absentee Landlord. You may be surprised to find how much fun you’re having, and perhaps even more surprised to realize that was part of the artists’ intention all along.