whistler and waterston
EGO AND ART
Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over
70 reviews. He is a ceramic
artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary
of the most common tropes in art is the masculine crazed genius.
This trope works on the assumption that some men’s genius
consumes so much of their psychic energy that they have nothing
left for manners and civility. These deficits most commonly
manifest as self-obsession and narcissism. Some of the more
prominent manifestations of this have been Peter Shaffer’s
portrait of self-indulgent Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart in his play
and movie Amadeus. Joyce Cary constructs the foot obsessed
egotistical irresponsible artist, Gulley Jimson to be the main
character of his 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth.
David Sure and Paul Attanasio tweaked this type, borrowing an
addictive personal and freakishly deductive mind from Sir Author
Conan Doyle’s beloved character Sherlock Holmes, to create
the equally superhumanly insightful and self-obsessed character
Gregory House for their popular television drama House.
caricatures are not created out of a vacuum. Transcendent narcissists
saturate history. One of the most spectacular was 19th century
American expatriate painter, James McNeil Whistler. A man so
invested in the myth of his own genius that he sued contemporary
critic John Ruskin for stating that one of his paintings was
tantamount to “flinging a pot of paint into the public’s
The true crescendo of his self-obsession happened a year earlier,
when he began work on his second most famous work: Harmony
in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room.
incident started when Whistler sold a painting, La Princesse
du pays de la porcelain (1863-1864), to shipping magnet
Frederick Leyland. The work was hung in the dining room of Leyland’s
London residence. The room also housed Leyland’s extensive
collection of blue and white Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
porcelains. The painting was commissioned as part of noted architect
Thomas Jeckyll’s remodeling of the room. During the project,
Jeckyll fell ill. Whistler offered to pick up and finish the
project. This began a series of outrageous actions, disputes
and retaliations that resulted in Harmony in Blue and Gold:
The Peacock Room.
and Whistler’s dispute would become case study in the
need for artistic liberty and restraint. Whistler strained the
romantic notion of the artist as a mad genius. Whether or not
The Peacock Room is a masterpiece of interior design
is totally subjective. The fact that Whistler abused the trust
of his patron goes without question. Leyland had granted Whistler
limited permission to make changes to the room, some minor alterations
to the wainscoting and cornices.
his patron’s absence, Whistler made bolder revisions.
He covered the ceiling with Dutch metal work. He then gilded
Jeckyll’s walnut shelving. In a room that Leyland intended
to be bright and open, he installed wooden shutters with four
magnificently plumed peacocks. Perhaps most outrageously, in
order to have the room be a better foil for his painting, Whistler
painted every inch of the walls a bright Bristol blue. Leyland
had lined the walls with Spanish leather covering, claimed to
have once belonged to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of
Henry VIII. Accounts of the timeline vary, but two very important
events happened. Leyland, outraged over the expenses, paid Whistler
less than half of what he was invoiced. Whistler got into the
room and opposite the original painting, painted two warring
peacocks. The larger one represented Leyland, the smaller Whistler.
The larger one is attacking the defenseless peacock in a fit
of rage, spurred by greed.
150 years later, the room on display at the Freer Gallery in
Washington, Smithsonian Institution, still captures the public’s
imagination. In a 2011 article in The New Yorker, critic
Peter Schjeldahl described the room as “the most intoxicating
decorative ensembles in the world.” Around
this time painter Darren Waterston became interested in the
room and began working on an installation based on the room:
Filthy Lucre. A fully enclosed room, this installation
is the centerpiece of his exhibition Uncertain Beauty
at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Mass MoCA (8
March 2014 through 1 February 2015). As a commentary on the
original work, the piece from its conception flawed. However,
the work does depict Waterston’s own personal obsessions.
the museum’s promotional video, Waterston describes Filthy
Lucre as both an homage to and parody of The Peacock
Room. On his website he states that the main intent of
the room is:
intent to recast the room as a social statement is doomed for
the original Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room
is so complex and arresting, it does not lend itself to being
decontextualized. Waterston is trying to make a statement about
our current state of arts and patronage, but the statement he
makes is little more than a tepid whisper of the original. In
this way, Waterston makes the same mistake that Gus Van Zandt
did in his remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
(1998), which was panned by legendary film critic Roger Ebert,
“The most dramatic difference between Alfred Hitchcock’s
Psycho (1960) and Gus Van Zandt's "shot-by-shot"
remake is the addition of a masturbation scene. That's appropriate,
because this new Psycho evokes the real thing in an
attempt to re-create remembered passion."
Van Zandt and Waterston share a hubris, causing them to have
a shared problem. They take on the task of trying to expand
onto or make contemporary a source object that is essentially
timeless. Whatever they do -- it will be measured against the
original. With both the Psycho and The Peacock
Room, the second version is going to be a pale uninspired
mockery of the original.
Waterston’s own idiosyncratic aesthetic undermines his
stated intent. He wants to draw a comparison of our current
age with the gilded age. Waterston however loves decay and decomposition.
This is the signature element of all his work. Waterston purposely
constructs a room that is in the throws of decay of decomposition.
He presents the room not as a resplendent example of taste and
connoisseurship but as a decaying husk of capitalist gluttony.
In here we see the problem. Dankness permeates the exhibition.
He replaces La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine with
a painting of garish figure that looks like a melting wax figurine.
The shelving is broken. The many of the ceramics are cracked
or in shards. Judging from his stated intent the purpose is
to recast our current age of excess, acquisition and consumption.
Some look as if they slumped and pooled in place over time.
Because of this Filthy Lucre can never be read as a
contemporary room. The point of Waterston’s work is at
odds with the intent of the exhibition. People do not read art
as both decaying and contemporary at the same time.
does succeed in creating a crescendo to his personal aesthetic
passion. The room works as an extension of Waterston’s
personal aesthetic reflected in the rest of his paintings and
also featured in Uncertain Beauty. Waterston creates
very erudite images out of conglomerations of caustic tints,
repulsive textures and melting limp forms. In this aspect, his
work is a spot on homage to Whistler’s original. In both
The Peacock Room and Filthy Lucre the artists
place a passionate devotion to their personal aesthetic above
all other considerations.