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Friends and Family

As pink as possible - John Waters interviewed by Charles Esche (p. 456-461)

CE: So, Lily van der Stokker.
JW: Yes. I am a huge fan of hers. You know when I first saw her work I was shocked. I was really shocked by her.

CE: You were shocked?
JW: Yeah, I was shocked. I still am. That's why I like it so much. The favourite quote I read all year was in the New Yorker. It had this article about Ileana Sonnabend and the giant collection she has collected over the years. They said ‘How did you have the eye to do this'. She said ‘Well I just bought what I hated'. It is a brilliant line because I know what she means – you just buy the things that at first make you say ‘oh my god'. Lily has that power. I only have two drawings by her but very sophisticated art people get mad when they see them – some of them anyway – you know what I mean.

CE: What's interesting is that she's so over the top, but in such a decorative, ‘nice' way.
JW: I had someone for dinner – I won't name her, she is a very sophisticated lady – and she got so mad. She said ‘you know I don't think I can eat here'. I knew then I was right – Lily is a really great artist. I tried to buy one thing – it was like a stool, a little flat foot stool. It looks like you would wake up and somebody would have thrown it on your lawn. Which I really liked. And anyway, decorative seems to be almost an obscene word in art terms – it is the one thing it can't be. That's why I love it, of course. But then if decorative means that interior decorators or rich people are buying a piece of art because it looks good in their apartment, then they are not going to buy her – although I think it would look fabulous with Chippendale in a very elegant, beautiful Park Avenue mansion.

CE: The interesting thing about Lily is that she really elicits that totally dedicated support from people. I am sensing the same thing from you – what do you think it is that gets people so fired up?
JW: I buy things because she supplies some of my needs. I tell you the two pieces I have are psychologically revealing: I have one that says ‘Sweet Little Baby'. Now, I have no desire to have a child believe me, but I have it in my bedroom. Another one is in my house in Baltimore. It is a plaid couch that says ‘We'. Now, I am a very single man who cannot imagine living with someone. So basically she supplies all my psychological needs. If only I could get one that says pets it would be perfect as I have none of those either. What is also amazing about her works when you first see them is that they look like a teenage girl kind of thing and it's thrilling when you see the artist's photos that she gives out and that make her look really scary. In person she looks great but I've seen a few pictures where she looks grumpy or angry or something and it makes me like the work even more. You know, there is something astounding in the work's simplicity that is almost terrifying to me. What it really makes me think of is going to the dentist and getting laughing gas, they always have very banal pictures on the ceiling that you are supposed to look at while you're getting your teeth filled. Well I think it‘s like that with her work.

CE: What, like... it puts you under?
JW: It's like pain – pain and pleasure together. You know I kind of wanted my notebooks in high school to look like that but you would get beaten up if your were a boy making those kind of drawings.

CE: Well I think that's true. That teenage aspect is really strong. I remember sitting next to a girl at school who would do these endless crayon drawings and they kind of got me into art because I couldn't do them and I was looking at them thinking ‘they are brilliant' while she was trying to do them as pink as possible.
JW: Yeah, and I think you got the title of your article there. The one I'd really like to have is really shocking because it just shows balloons and says ‘Thank you'. I like that a lot, it seems scary to me.

CE: Where is the scariness?
JW: Because it is so nice. I read a review that said that Mike Kelley is the bad boy of contemporary art and Lily is the good girl, but they are equally extreme. Another article said that she celebrated femininity and stupidity. That really made me laugh – I love reading what really serious art critics say about her. They like Lily's work and they get it, but it really is the kind of thing that causes arguments – even in the art world – and that is very very hard to do. I think it is always the strongest art that surprises people and they are either very pro or very against it – I don't think anybody feels in the middle of the road about her work.

CE: I was in Amsterdam last week and visited Lily's studio. One of the things she talked about was trying to make paintings that are ugly. And I associated that with some of the work you have done. I wonder whether you see a connection at all with your own work, maybe through this idea of the extremeness of the work flipping over from being incredibly beautiful to incredibly shocking and vice versa. As when in some of your films the moments of the greatest grotesque shock become really pleasurable.
JW: I can see that, but I think that her subject matter is very much the shock of the middle, whereas mine is the shock of the very low or very high class, and the high class people are usually the victims in my movies. So basically her imagery is much scarier for me. I am quite comfortable in a rich person's house or in a slum, but I'm really scared in a suburban shopping mall. Her work really does come from the middle and terrorises it – that's why it speaks so strongly to me.

CE: I am also thinking about a decorative connection. Some of the outfits that people are wearing in your movies lend a late 60s, early 70s feel to the aesthetic – do you recognise this in both of your works?
JW: It's the same kind of lettering, true, but I think it's kind of timeless. Girls still draw letters like that on their notebooks, I think it's much more classical, if you will (laughter).

CE: One thing I also wanted to bring up is the girly aspect. I can't help but relate it to the way that gender is kind of all over the place in your films. And, in a way, she is so specifically girly that her work is almost an antidote to that.
JW: Yes she is girly – it is almost artistically incorrect girliness, which is why I like it too. Most people do not celebrate this kind of girliness, especially as she isn't a teenage girl. Which is why it is so amazing to capture something so perfectly and so scarily that you never really thought of until you see her work. The style of her work is actually an immensely popular genre if you think about it. Millions of teenage girls have drawings that are good, but no one ever tells them that they are.

CE: Most of the time they are done to avoid paying attention to what you learn in school.
JW: Right – she is celebrating femininity in a way that generally isn't feminist, but it is still a new spin on feminism. It is celebrating what once was thought of as bad – and that is also in my work. This is where I see the connection, if you are trying to hook us together. Both of us are celebrating what once was thought of as bad, exaggerating it, and hopefully getting people to think of it as good.

CE: Her work also has a Peter Pan, eternal youth feel about it and I wonder if you recognise that. For me it seems always to be about recapturing what it is like being a kid.
JW: Well, I think her last show had a lot to do with Abstract Expressionism and middle age. Certainly being a couple was part of it, as was her own age. But she is still drawing very unlike her age. Didn't your mother always say ‘start acting your age'?But she refuses to, and that's really good.

CE: She has done these recent drawings where the text reads ‘extremely experimental art by older people', and things like that. It seems to me as if she's trying to give us a way into our childish fantasies or the child within.
JW: Maybe they are just more autobiographical than you realise. Maybe she is celebrating what is going on in her life, but still in the very artistically incorrect way that has become her signature.

CE: I don't know if you've seen some of her most very recent work where she ‘name checks' people quite a lot.
JW: What do you mean?

CE: She paints the names of people that she knows – sometimes people in the art world, sometimes other people – and she calls it friends and other people. I was kind of struck when I saw it because of its relationship to a credit list.
JW: For me it sounds like what used to be on notebooks all the time. At the school I went to girls used to have their boyfriends names written all over them in those balloon letters, using the biggest letters they could. They would have to cover them each month with brown paper because they would break-up. I think that is the first thing that I remember thinking about her work. So whether it is Bobby, a 14 year old boyfriend or... well I don't know what names she is picking, but as the names are written in letters very unlike those people, she is really making each name her own.

CE: I wonder about the relationship you have with painting because, as a film maker, you might see painting as a dreary, medieval pastime.
JW: No, I don't think that's true but I think it is harder to do new stuff with it.

CE: I also wonder if, as you are working with and looking at moving images all the time, the power of a still image has something special for you?
JW: I did that with my own photo show recently – I took pictures of other peoples movies and redirected them the way I thought they should be. It is a memory not of how the other director wanted it, but how I wanted it to be. But stills from motion pictures are certainly what people remember – not the movie. They remember the most famous stills that are repeated over and over again.

CE: Do you think so – is it not the sequence?
JW: No, they remember that one image if it is a famous still. In a way, that's what you remember even more than a movie. So there has to be a frozen image from every movie for you to really remember it.

CE: So when you are making movies are you thinking about the stills, or is that something that is developed afterwards ?
JW: I used to more, but now there's a photographer on set all the time and I want him to take the time to get the pictures. In Europe they need way more stills than they do in America, and in Japan you have to have so much artwork – so I am very conscious of it, yes. And in my old movies, well, a perfect example is Pink Flamingoes. Divine in that red gown with a gun is still the most famous still from any of my movies – the one that is on all the posters. I remember the day that the photo was taken and, even when we had almost no money to make the movie, I always had someone on set to take pictures – knowing that you had to have this to really get people to remember.

CE: So that related to the decorative element of your movies. The first movie I saw was Hairspray and what really leapt out at me was the colour of the clothes and the sets.
JW: Right. The clothes were all the creation of Van Smith. Someone has described the sets as garish. Vincent Perineo has done my set designs from the very beginning right up to Cecil B. Demented, and he very much knows the look I'm after. He certainly did begin at the beginning of Pink Flamingoes. We celebrated bad 50s stuff when no one liked it – it was really easy to find stuff in thrift stores because no-one collected it. Now it is in museums as a modern antique – then they were a dollar.

CE: But when you are working on the films and the set design, colour seems to be injected into the films in an unreal way, like an energy. Your films have that ‘as pink as possible' feel to them.
JW: Yes definitely, I really remember a wallpaper in Female Trouble that sums up the feel of the movie and I think we should have really had a still of that wallpaper on its own. It had flying saucers, circles, etc. It looks like it was Bridget Riley meets, I don't know, the worst wallpaper you can imagine. It is garish but you have to like it – you like it in spite of yourself. And I think Lily and I are sort of going in the same direction with that.

CE: One final thing – one aspect of your work that relates to Lily's as well is the Europeanness of it.
JW: Well, that's flattering to me. Basically, my last film was financed totally with French money.

CE: So some other people have seen that as well...
JW: Yes, but on the other hand it is obviously about American trash culture. I guess you could say that, on a basic level, you go into it thinking that this is kind of the worst and the best of America. But I look up to that culture, not down on it. I'm not condescending, I don't think.

CE: And that relates to Lily as well because she is not condescending about the teenagers.
JW: No, but does Lily have more success in the art world in America or Europe?

CE: I think she has more success in Europe in terms of being taken seriously. But it divides when it comes to sales – you've got the money over there.
JW: Not recently – if you've seen what's been going on with the stock market and everything. I think the art world is quite frightened if you want to know the truth.

CE: That's true and I guess it affects movies as well?
JW: Well the actors are going to go on strike – the stock market's crashing and the movies are going on strike, and I'm not feeling so great... So I'm just looking at my Sweet Little Baby thinking I'm so glad I don't have a real one (laughs).

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