Catastrophe in Provincetown

There’s been a Catastrophe at Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown…and John Waters willfully takes the blame.

Only John Waters, everyone’s favorite irreverent cult film director turned writer and performer would describe a show like Catastrophe as “kind of lovely.” Photos of car accidents, dead celebrities, paintings of serial killers and off-putting portraits of destitute men and women are just a few pieces Waters chose to showcase at Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown Massachusetts. This curated set of images and sculptures isn’t just another example of Water’s exploration of bad taste as good art, it’s something more nefarious, disturbing and fascinating.

Catastrophe is the latest in a long-running collaboration between John Waters and Merola. Since 1999, Waters has shown his work at the gallery several times and previously curated a show in 2007 titled Eliminate. We briefly pinned down the Prince of Puke to learn a bit more about his newly curated show and find out just what he’s trying to pull on the care-free Provincetown cruisers and vacationers.

Can you recall a recent time when you were on vacation and a piece of art transformed you by making you feel bad in a whole new and positive way? Even though we know vacations aren’t typically your M.O.

Some people go on vacation and they go to an art gallery. This might not be what they’re thinking they want to bring home and put over their couch, but they should. Actually, these pieces would be much better.

I don’t take vacations very often. The only place I go on vacation is to London every year for a week. Provincetown isn’t my vacation because I’m always writing here…in any city I live in I go to the art galleries a lot. That’s how I found out about all these artists – which many people do not know about. That’s what I like to do when I curate a show. I like to bring these artists to collectors and other artists that they’ve never seen. I like art that generally startles me in any way…the kind of work I always buy is work that makes me say “oh my gosh” It almost pisses me off and then I laugh and then I love it…that’s usually the kind of art I buy.

Brett Reichmann Simulation Masturbation 2010 watercolor, gouache on paper 26 x 40 inches

I think everything in this show could do that to some people. I find that’s what art is supposed to do; wreck things, change things, change how you look at things. This whole show is trying to make you think, ‘if anything bad happens to me, maybe I should get a painting of it or a photograph’ because then you turn it into something else and it won’t make you feel bad…maybe, hopefully.

I don’t think anybody will come to this show and leave feeling bad. To be honest, when I go into a lot of other art galleries, I feel bad simply because they’re trying to make me feel good. I already feel good! I don’t think art should make you feel good. Meaning, good in the sense that art has to be positive or beautiful or full of craft. All those things are usually a detriment to the artwork. Talent is not enough.

Perhaps a bit of audacity as well?

Yes, yes.

You stated in the preface that you hope people can create a sort of happy distance from what’s going on in these photos, paintings and sculptures. How do you suggest the viewers go about accomplishing that happy distance when faced with such horrifying and disturbing moments and ideas?

The works might be depicting something that is scary, threatening or tragic. But, then you have to look at how the artist completely dealt with that…in which form and in what part of that inspired them to draw it, spend a huge amount of time painting it, or almost no time taking a picture of something terrible that happened. I think that’s where the art comes in— the artist chose some image. The Jonestown picture on the cover for example. I recognize it as Jonestown. It’s a very beautiful, calm painting. I do believe that many people who went Jonestown originally were doing the right thing. They went for the right reasons and it probably was the biggest experiment in their life that worked until it didn’t work – and when it didn’t work it was too late. Many of the Jonestown survivors today – and there is a large group of them, that have newsletters and meetings and everything – agree it was pretty much murder, not suicide. His guards were there! Not everybody did it willingly, even if they did do it willingly, isn’t that almost murder? When you brainwash someone into committing suicide? I don’t know. It’s a grey area.


Charlotte Neel Ritto Scene | Jonestown acrylic on canvas 51 x 71 inches

The show seems to be examining catastrophe at different moments. All the car crash photos and the disembodied Jane Mansfield wig–

I think it’s more her scalp than her wig. It deals with the question of what did happen that day? Was she partially scalped? Was it just her wig? She was not beheaded…so there’s so many different stories of that legend of her terrible ending and I was trying to pay tribute to them all in a way that really went along with Jane Mansfield. She was kind of known for having hideous taste, but hideously beautiful taste (laughs).

The cars by the Mexican photographer, Enrique Metinides, who I really love, I went to see his show in NYC and I did not know him at all. He did all these shots in the 40s and 50s…it’s almost like a love picture. It is a fender bender, but to me it’s a romance.

Enrique Metinides Choque de Camion y Camionetta 1950

Enrique Metinides Choque de Camion y Camionetta 1950


I totally see that. The cars are convening at a moment that seems pleasant.

A gentle touch. It was almost sexual.

…and then u look at Arnold’s pictures. I’ve been a fan for a long time. A famous Swiss photographer. He mostly did insurance pictures but then he’d shoot one for art everytime. To me, that picture looks like a car with a face, that face! It’s still smiling at you…even if the people died the car still lived.


Photo by Arnold Odermatt


Sam McKinniss Portrait of T.J. Lane, Chardon Ohio High School Shooter 2016 oil paint, aqua-leaf on canvas 60 x 40 inches

And the Sam McKinniss portrait of T.J. Lane even depicts the teenager as more serene even in his possibly pre-murderous state-

It’s scary in Provincetown because all the circus boys kind of look like that, but if you know about him, he is one of the most hideous peopleescaped from jail and all that. He is somebody that is much more frightening in terms of what’s inside of him as opposed to what’s outside of him. In Provincetown on Commercial Street during August, he looks like thousands of gay guys that come here to cruise and party.

You better hope he doesn’t.

Lee Ann seems a bit more friendly.

By Bruce Gilden? Oh yes! Well, [T.J. Lane] could skate through town and no one would know he’s a murderer. This woman couldn’t get away with one thing. She might get busted just for how she looks. The homeless may even through her out. But I like her! She must have a sense of humor somewhere because you can’t get through life looking like that without being able to roll with the punches.

She could very easily have a bit role in Cry Baby or Pink Flamingos?

She could have. I know many people in Baltimore who look like that. She’s celebrating it in a way – she allowed the photographer to take her picture. The photographer lends a bit of dignity to her. She had hair and makeup done for this shot. She has eyeliner and lipstick on. She has a look. God knows she has a look and that’s all that counts. It’s people that don’t have any look that are depressing to me.

waters2 leeann

Photo by Bruce Gilden Lee-Ann Milwaukee State Fair

Does living and working in Provincetown inform your selection for this show and other curated shows like this one?

It’s anti-vacation. It’s hopefully satirizing how hard it is to have a serious art gallery in a resort town.

Do you think Provincetown has notably changed or influenced your creative choices?

I’ve been here 52 years, I think I dropped a wad of gum in 1968 that’s still on the same corner. I’m for change too, god knows. However, I do find that comforting in a way.

Photo by Greg Gorman

Photo by Greg Gorman


Catch Catastrophe at Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown Massacusetts July 22-August 11. In addition, be on the look-out for two books from John Waters. Mr. Know-it-all, a collection of essays and Wiremouth, a novel about a women who steals suitcases. 

Top photo:John Waters,Tragedy, 2015 acrylic, synthetic hair, painted silicone, urethane.  18″ x 18″ x 5″ in. in and Edition of 25.
John ArvanitisCatastrophe in Provincetown

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