Darren Waterston: Uncertain Beauty

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  • DarrenWaterston

    Uncertain Beauty

  • mountains suspended in a luminescent fog. Unmoored from any recognizable horizon save for a suggestion of a small city in the distance, the craggy peaks float between form and formlessness, the physical and the metaphysical. Like the works of influential predecessors Yves Tanguy and Odilon Redon, Waterstons paintings bring to mind utopian dreams and uncanny nightmaresprecarious internal and external landscapes which plumb the relationship between the beautiful and the grotesque. Hints of geological formations and other natural phenomenafrom fiery volcanoes to recognizable creaturespopulate even the most abstract of Waterstons works. Crystalline shapes and lichen-like forms mix with references to the bodyeyes, intestines, phallusesas well as architectural fragments and other evidence of human creativity. Together they suggest the forces of creation and destructionlife and deaththat are at the heart of the artists paintings.

    All of Waterstons works engage rich cultural, spiritual, art historical, and social references: the Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi; the 13th-century Latin hymn, Stabat Mater; the poems of Emily Dickinson; and the mourning rituals of the Victorian period, to name just a few. For Filthy Lucre (201314), the grand centerpiece of this exhibition, the artist re-imagines painter James McNeill Whistlers decorative masterpiece Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (187677). Waterston became fascinated with the historic interior both for its stunning union of painting and architecture and for its dramatic story of wealth, patronage, and artistic ego. The

    Darren Waterstons lush paintings on panel and paper conjure the ambiguous terrain of distant worlds and psychological states.

    His moody, atmospheric compositions which range in size from the intimate to the monumentalpossess a dramatic sense of space and luminosity, glimpses of an infinite cosmos. Familiar and at the same time completely foreign, the seductive images are never quite one thing or another, moving between darkness and light, past and future, liquid and solid, abstraction and representation.

    With The Hermits Paradise (2012) Waterston distills Giovanni Bellinis radiant image Saint Francis in the Desert (c. 1480) to a mirage-like suggestion of

    Filthy Lucre Study No. 1, 2013, oil on wood panel, 20 x 20 inches, courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York

  • original Peacock Roomthe dining room of the London home of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (Whistlers first major patron)was designed to showcase Leylands collection of Asian ceramics along with Whistlers painting La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (186364) which hung over the fireplace. Leyland asked the artist to consult on the color scheme for the room, but, while the collector and architect were away, Whistler took boldif not egregiousliberties. In a fit of enthusiasm he painted the entire room, executing four gold peacocks on the shutters. When the collector discovered the extent of the artist's intervention (and following Whistler's request for 2000 pounds in payment), he refused to pay the full amount and banned Whistler from the house. In an act of spite, Whistler painted another pair of battling peacocks over the expensive leather wall panels; one bird was bedecked in gold coins, the other boasted a white crest feather similar to Whistler's own shock of white hair.

    At MASS MoCA Waterston has reconstructed the room as an extravagant ruin, reinterpreting Whistlers paintings in his own unique style and marring them with signs of age and neglect. Waterston describes the installation as a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history. A vision of both discord and beauty, the once extravagant interiorevery surface and object within sumptuously paintedis warped, ruptured, and in the process of being overtaken by natural phenomena. Gold stalactites hang from every surface, mold appears to be growing on the crystalline ceiling lamps, and the paint of the central mural drips down the walls into a puddle of gold. The splintered and buckling shelves hold 250 hand-painted ceramic vessels, inspired by the collections of both Leyland and the American Gilded Age industrialist, Charles Freer. (After Leylands death, Freer acquired the original Peacock Room and reassembled it intact in his

    James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77), oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.61

  • Detroit home with his own Asian pottery.) Thick with impasto and dripping glazes, the pots and vases of Waterston's version are toppled and shattered. A soundscape composed by the band BETTY animates the space, conjuring both the splendor of the original room and its dirty secrets. Whispered tones quote Whistler himself, as well as the imagined words of the porcelain princess, who oversees the unsettling scene from her perch above the mantel.

    The nearly violent tableau manifests the ugliness beneath the Peacock Rooms beautythe fight between patron and artist, the disintegration of their friendship, and,

    atop a miniature version of Whistlers home (the contents of which were being offered to his creditors, including Leyland). Whistler thus makes a jab at Leylands own

    peacocking as well as his miserliness.Waterstons parody of the Peacock

    Room raises questions about the relationship between art and money then and now, as well as the relationships between artists and their patronsboth collectors and institutions. Situating Filthy Lucre within MASS MoCAs 19th-century mill buildings also brings into focus the relationship between labor and the great wealth that makes luxuriesand great cultural landmarkslike the original Peacock Room possible. Both Leyland and Freerthe two great art patrons who owned the Peacock Room (before Freer ultimately donated it to the Smithsonian Institution)made their fortune as industrialists, Leyland in shipping and Freer in the railroads. Both men came from humble roots, but their money and their tastes for art eased their way into levels of society that were previously reserved for the aristocracy in Europe and were essentially unprecedented in America before the aptly termed Gilded Age. With Filthy Lucre, Waterston warns us about our own Gilded Age and what might lie beneath the glittering surface.

    Susan CrossCurator

    as the title of Filthy Lucre emphasizes, the complicated ties between art and money. Waterstons title is in fact inspired by a caricature that Whistler painted of Leyland titled The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor). Conflating the words

    frilly and filthy, Whistler pokes fun at Leyland's ruffled shirts, portraying the collector as a disfigured peacock seated

    Filthy Lucre, 2013-14, mixed media, appr. 20 x 30 x 12 feet, courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York (in progress)

    Filthy Lucre will travel to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., opening in July, 2015.

  • 1040 MASS MoCA WayNorth Adams, MA 01247413.MoCA.111massmoca.org

    cover:Filthy Lucre, 2013-14, mixed media, appr. 20 x 30 x 12 feet, courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York (in progress)

    back: Study for Filthy Lucre, 2013-14, mixed media on paper, 8 x 6 inches, courtesy the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York (detail)

    interior flap: The Hermit's Paradise, 2012, oil on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches, courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

    Darren Waterston received his BFA from the Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, in 1988 and studied at the Akademie der Knst, Berlin, and the Hochschule fr Bildende Knst, Mnster, in 1986-87. Between 1994 and 2004, the artist had a studio on remote Denman Island in British Columbia, Canada. In 2004, Waterston was awarded the Diebenkorn Teaching Fellowship by the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2005, he was awarded a residency fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in rural Umbria, Italy. He has had solo exhibitions at the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco (2013); The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu (2011); the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Stanford, California (2009); and the Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon (2007). Waterstons paintings are in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Seattle Art Museum; and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The artist currently lives and works in North Adams and New York.

    Darren Waterston: Uncertain BeautyMarch 8, 2014February 1, 2015

    This exhibition is supported by Leslie Mason & Thad Meyerriecks, ABC Carpet & Home, Bridget Moore, Ann Hatch, Robin Reed & Lorye George, Federico de Vera, Greg Kucera & Larry Yocom, Cheryl Haines, Kerry Inman & Denby Auble, Kathleen O'Grady, Dave Koz, Kaye Cummings, and Valerie Justin. Additional funding is provided by a grant from the Artists Resource Trust, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Bonnie Schaefer, the Kevin J. Mossier Foundation, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Home Furnishings, and Gheri Arnold.