Hearing a remixed version of a song on the radio or in the club can be both jarring and familiar at the same. Gay contemporary artist Darren Waterston has taken that “I’ve heard this before” feeling from an auditory sense to a visual experience with his new art piece “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre” located in the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art (1050 Independence Ave., S.W.).
“Filthy Lucre” is a contemporary take on the acclaimed “Peacock Room” by 19th century American artist James McNeill Whistler that is on permanent display in the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art. Waterston’s reimagining of the room depicts how Waterston views the original “Peacock Room” in context with the room’s tragic history. The exhibit opens Saturday and will remain open through January 2017.
“When I walked into the ‘Peacock Room’ for the first time I was struck by how extraordinarily beautiful it was,” Waterston says. “There’s something about the ‘Peacock Room’ that had this sense of decadence that was so beautiful and excessive that it almost becomes grotesque.”
That feeling is very much attached to the room’s history. Whistler was asked by his friend and patron Frederick Richards Leyland for a color scheme in Leyland’s recently redecorated dining room in South Kensington, England. While Leyland was away on a trip, Whistler completely repainted the room without consulting Leyland. Leyland was outraged and refused to pay Whistler for his work. Their feud lasted for the rest of their lives.
Waterston found himself connecting with Whistler’s hardships in finding recognition for his work at the beginning of a gilded age in art as well as the issues between money and art. They are themes that Waterston believes are still relevant in today’s world of art.
“You have this incredible collision of enormous wealth that has been dissimilated and extraordinary deprivation and hardship,” Waterston says. “We are living in our own gilded age.”
He began creating the piece while doing a yearlong residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. He decided to reach out to Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art at Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art. Her mentorship over the project resulted in her inviting Waterston to display the work alongside the original “Peacock Room” in the gallery.
Alternative rock group and LGBT activists BETTY created the background music that plays when entering “Filthy Lucre.” Waterston says that he had known the group for years and reached out to them to collaborate on the project. He says that the music came together before he had even started to build the room.
“They composed a huge, beautiful symphonic piece called ‘Filthy Lucre’ and then not unlike how the room was built, we dissembled it, broke it, fractured it so that the sound scape is actually fragments and shards of the original piece,” Waterston says.
“Filthy Lucre” appears to also be fragments of the original ‘Peacock Room.” “Peacock Room” is an elaborately decorated blue and gold creation while “Filthy Lucre” appears to be a deconstructed and worn down version of the same room. Glazer says that she didn’t even realize the two pieces would be complementing each other in such a way until after it was completed.
“It is very much a commentary of what might have happened to the Peacock Room if it had remained a room inhabited by people and had not been elevated to iconic masterpiece status,” Glazer says.
Waterston wants to bring forward the idea of beauty in masterpieces with “Filthy Lucre” and have people reexamine their initial thoughts on the idea.
“The room itself kind of demands this scrutiny of looking at our own relationship with beauty and our sort of longings and desires that we come to when we come to a work of art that is noted for its extraordinary beauty,” Waterston says. “I wanted to create a sort of upheaval in that and to understand how beauty is a very unstable idea and a very unstable concept.”