When I first heard about the Smithsonian’s newest piece on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Filthy Lucre, I was immediately intrigued – it’s an installation piece created by Darren Waterston that focuses on exposing the historic Peacock Room’s complex history. A vicious and complete destruction of an extremely prestigious, composed, and valuable piece of history? Who wouldn’t be interested? Of course, the idea that anyone would truly allow someone to replace this lavish and significant artistic achievement is ludicrous (something I quickly found out after stepping into the original Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art). After shaking off the initial embarrassment over my confusion, I studied the history and visuals of the room. The Peacock Room was created by James McNeill Whistler as a redecoration for his friend and patron Frederick Richards Leyland’s dining room. When Leyland saw the rich blue and gold colors in the room, he rejected the alterations and refused to pay. Whistler retaliated, heatedly painting arguing peacocks on one of the walls to represent himself and his (now former) friend fighting over art and money. Surprisingly, when I entered the room itself, I found it was a rather quiet experience – decadent, but small; opulent, but stagnant. The highly organized vases and pristine portrait ooze composure, arguably overshadowing the room’s antagonistic history.
Walking into Filthy Lucre, however, was fairly different from the structured build of the Peacock Room. This piece takes the room’s antagonistic history and amplifies it, using violent imagery and a jarring soundscape to transform and revolutionize the effect of the Peacock Room. The construction of the installation is a stunningly accurate replica of the room. Waterston clearly paid careful attention to every detail, keeping the structure in tact while distorting its individual components. The shattered vases along the interior and the golden goop overflowing from the walls (see my photo, right) accentuate the theme of demolition and decay due to social and financial disparity. The peacock colors remain in Waterston’s reimagining of the room, but he adds thoughtful splashes of red via well-placed bright vases and a menacing light spilling through the windows. I think Waterson explains his piece’s effect on the viewer best, discussing his process of creating Filthy Lucre:
As I began to research further, I was struck by the play and continuity between art and architecture and started to think about my own project as an all-encompassing environment. I imagined [Filthy Lucre] as a painting that one would literally “walk into,” completely surrounding the viewer in the experience.
This piece stretches the definition of an installation, existing as more of a 4-D painting with its focus on composition and visceral elements. The entire Peacock Room REMIX exhibition focuses on how historical context effects art, so I think it’s beneficial to see the original Peacock Room before heading to the reinvented piece (on purpose, of course).
Filthy Lucre, 2013–14
Oil, acrylic, and gold leaf on wood, aluminum,
fiberglass, and ceramic, with audio and lighting
Approximately 146 x 366 x 238 inches
Courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York
Installation view, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
Photo: Hutomo Wicaksono, courtesy Freer|Sackler
Several related exhibitions are coming up this January, so be sure to check them out!