As the cello music stops, I crane my neck forward and lean in toward the toppled-over shelves, straining to hear the words being whispered by the broken vase. “An artist’s career,” the ceramic seems to say, “always begins tomorrow.” Next to me, Darren Waterston nods toward the urn. “I am a thing of beauty,” whispers the vase, “and a profit-maker forever.”
I chuckle a bit, and Waterston smiles slightly. “Kind of freaky,” I find myself saying. “But in a good way.”
The recorded voice and cello soundscape provided by the band BETTY begins again, and we wander through the distorted room. Walls are covered by vases that look as if they are about to fall from the broken, splintered wooden shelves on which they precariously sit. To our left, large images of peacocks painted in gold fill floor-to-ceiling window shutters. Gold shapes like stalactites hang threateningly from the ceiling. And at the far end of the room, a pool of gold paint collects on the wooden floor like blood from some long-forgotten crime scene.
Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre” is a reinterpretation of James McNeill Whistler’s “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room,” and serves as the centerpiece of his new Mass Moca exhibit Uncertain Beauty. It is invitingly disorienting.
Waterston tells me he wanted to create a painted room, and was drawn to Whistler’s famous “Peacock Room” as a way to explore the complex intersections of money, art and patronage. The result is a space that invites the viewer both to remember the forgotten and discover the unknown. Either way, I find the experience of wandering through a reinterpreted recreation of a room that originally existed nearly 150 years ago extremely odd and unmistakably exhilarating.
“I set out to recreate Whistler’s fabled ‘Peacock Room’ in a state of decadent demolition—a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history,” the mixed-media artist explains. The room’s “once-extravagant interior” is ruptured and warped, both lavish and grotesque at the same time, “like it’s diseased.”
Walking through the installation while hearing from Waterston the history of the original “Peacock Room,” I feel as if I’ve happened upon the remnants of some Gilded Age relic, which for decades has decomposed in a neglected, cobwebbed attic, waiting patiently to be reconsidered.
It’s the first time I’ve come across the story of the “Peacock Room.” But the tale feels familiar in that elusive, collective-unconscious sort of way.
Lowell, Mass.-born Whistler painted what later became known as the “Peacock Room” from 1876 to 1877. He was commissioned by the wealthy London shipping industrialist Frederick Leyland, who wanted an ornate room in which to showcase his collection of Asian ceramics. Since Whistler’s painting “La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine” was featured over the room’s fireplace, Leyland consulted with the artist regarding the color scheme for the room. While Leyland and his architect were out of town, however, Whistler went far past the color scheme conundrum he was asked to assist with, and painted the entire room—including the now-famous gold peacocks—over the Italian leather that lined its walls.
Not surprisingly, Leyland objected not only to the egregious artistic license Whistler took with the room, but also to the amount of money that was charged to his account to pay for the project.
“Whistler was a total diva,” Waterston tells me. “He was trying to impress Leyland. But he was taking advantage of him as well.”
On the other hand, as Waterston points out, Leyland did not alter Whistler’s creation at all.
“Both he and his patron were peacocks,” continues Waterston. “But it was definitely an aggressive act on Whistler’s part.”
Leyland sued Whistler for the amount that was charged to his account. In response, and to pay off the debt he incurred from the lawsuit, the artist painted an unflattering portrait of his patron called “The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy [sic] Lucre (The Creditor).”
Waterston’s installation—“Filthy Lucre”—draws its name from the title of Whistler’s offending “Gold Scab” caricature, which depicts Leyland as part peacock, playing the piano while sitting on a bench resembling the artist’s home and studio.
“It’s a fantastic painting,” Waterston notes.
After Leyland’s death, the entire room was acquired by American railroad industrialist Charles Freer, who had it taken apart, moved across the Atlantic Ocean, and reassembled at his own home in Detroit, Mich., to better showcase his own collection of Asian ceramics.
The room was given to the Smithsonian Museum upon Freer’s death, and once again was broken down and reassembled hundreds of miles away, this time in Washington, D.C., where it remains. Uncertain Beauty will be on display at Mass MoCA until February, 2015. The following July, Waterston’s “Filthy Lucre” will likewise make the trip to the Smithsonian, where it will be shown adjacent to the original “Peacock Room.”
The centerpiece of Waterston’s reimagined “Peacock Room” is his painting “Art and Money,” which sits on the wall opposite the mantel and features two peacocks—one representing Whistler and the other representing Leyland—disemboweling each other.
“The history of art is really about patronage,” Waterston tells me. There has always been a correlation between who has “the money to fund art” and what art is being seen. Waterston adds that for him, “Filthy Lucre” “really became about confronting that.”
Uncertain Beauty is bigger, more ambitious and more expensive than anything Waterston has previously done. The installation was worked on by a core team of six at Mass Moca, with another eight regularly lending support. In addition, two galleries are filled with close to 30 paintings and other works on paper from Waterston’s various series from the past five years. To make the project happen, Waterston moved from New York to North Adams to take up residency at Mass MoCA.
The placement of the exhibit in an old factory building that now showcases large-scale artwork further underscores Waterston’s examination of money and art.
“Situating ‘Filthy Lucre’ within Mass MoCA’s 19th-century mill buildings,” curator Susan Cross writes in her essay on the Uncertain Beauty exhibit, “brings into focus the relationship between labor and the great wealth that makes luxuries—and great cultural landmarks—like the original ‘Peacock Room’ possible.”•