Last weekend, MASS MoCA opened a new exhibition by American artist Darren Waterston entitled “Uncertain Beauty.” The exhibition showcases Waterston’s skills as a painter, as well as a unique installation and centerpiece, “Filthy Lucre,” an independently standing room based on James McNeill Whistler’s “Peacock Room.” Waterston’s dark, even haunting sensibility pervades his works, leaving the viewer uneasy about his or her participation in the art world against which Waterston so vehemently protests.
The exhibition stretches across three seemingly separate galleries on the third floor of MASS MoCA, with each room featuring a slightly different aspect of Waterston’s work. An entire room is dedicated to “Filthy Lucre.” It stands in the center of the room, placed at a rakish angle such that its own freestanding black box is not parallel to any of the gallery’s walls. The installation’s stark black walls give way to an ornate, even overwhelming interior. Gold paint lines nearly every surface, dripping imprecisely off the various moldings and onto the floors and walls. Broken pottery litters the floor, seeming to have fallen from the purposely-broken shelving. The influence of Whistler’s work, which is currently on display at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., features most prominently. Everything from the general color scheme of green and gold to the exact placement of the shelving and paintings that hang on the embellished walls could be seen as a corrupted version of Whistler’s earlier work. The space is dark, and a haunting tune, composed by BETTY plays intermittently within the walls.
Rather than the structured, perhaps over-the-top, luxury of “Peacock Room,” “Filthy Lucre” presents an unpleasant, uncomfortable and violent space. It seems dirty in its artful disarray. Even the golden peacocks that adorn the walls appear to be fighting each other, with entrails dripping out of one another’s beaks. The more artfully dueling peacocks in Whistler’s work are entitled “Art and Money.” Susan Cross, curator of the exhibition, suggests “Waterston’s 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 patrons … Situating ‘Filthy Lucre’ within MASS MoCA’s 19th century mill buildings also brings into focus the relationship between labor and the great wealth that makes luxuries [like the Peacock Room] possible.” For me, the experience of standing in the midst of “Filthy Lucre” was an uncomfortable one. It forces uncomfortable realities onto the viewer that they may not consider or want to consider on an ordinary trip to the museum. Museums are venerated as prestigious and generally positive institutions, and disarming questions of money and the potential exploitation of artists is rarely breached. Waterston’s work forces viewers to confront their experience with art, and whether their reasons for its appreciation are valid, or if they simply intend to show off their wealth of dollars or knowledge.
The paintings and sketches of Waterston’s that adorned the other two rooms of the exhibition were, to put it simply, stunning. Ranging in size from that of a postcard to large enough to dominate a full wall, each work seemed to be a cohesive continuation, yet was still able to competently stand on its own. The works are rendered in deep hues, ranging from rusty, dark reds to blackened turquoise, and most have a background of pale grey dominating the surface. Billowing, misty outer lines reminiscent of East Asian landscapes make repeated appearances in various works. As Cross puts it, “Crystalline shapes and lichen-like forms mix with references to the body – eyes, intestines, phalluses – as well as architectural fragments and other evidence of human creativity. Together they suggest the forces of creation and destruction – life and death – that are at the heart of the artist’s paintings.” The paintings exemplify a sense of delicacy that is present in every single one of Waterston’s works in “Uncertain Beauty.” Each line itself seems uncertain, creating wandering and lightly drawn shapes in watercolors so faint that the paintbrush must have barely touched the surface. As in the delicate chaos of “Filthy Lucre,” each displacement is present for a reason.
“Uncertain Beauty” will remain on display at MASS MoCA through January 2015, after which it will move to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This is one of many excellent exhibitions currently in the galleries of MASS MoCA, to which students of the College get free access, so consider a trip the next time you need to exit our small purple bubble.