Emotionally unstable, Jeckyll abandoned the project. Leyland decamped to the country, giving Whistler his blessing to carry out some of the painter’s minor alterations.
But Whistler’s vision ballooned wildly, and unbeknownst to
Leyland, he proceeded to execute his own, far more expensive
design scheme. Presented the bill, Leyland was shocked.
Whistler, in turn, delivered an indignant riposte to his patron’s
refusal of payment. Believing Leyland to be an unappreciative
philistine, Whistler invited the press to behold his creation, which
he dubbed Harmony in Blue and Gold, hoping the attendant
accolades would shame Leyland. Leyland banished Whistler from
the townhouse, but the artist continued his ridicule with cruelly
parodic portraits. Meanwhile Jeckyll, distressed by the defacing of
his work, wound up in a sanatorium, where he died.
Waterston has long been known as a painter of deceptively
ravishing dystopias. “I’ve always been interested in the tension
between the beautiful and the deformed,” he concedes. “I’ve
read about the great utopias of the last one hundred years,
and they were all closed systems, unchanging. Within them,
everything festers. It’s inherent that these idealized visions
become themselves deformed.”
For Waterston, the Peacock Room was one such irresistible
closed system, lush and stunning, but also appallingly extravagant
and, because of the antipathy it engendered, rotten in its soul.
Amid the national conversation about America’s “one percent,”
this symbol of a bygone gilded age also possesses a barbed
contemporary resonance for Waterston. “I wanted to have the
viewer feel disoriented, confused, off-balance, and to take in
those conflicting feelings of repulsion and seduction.”
Filthy Lucre is Waterston’s “Ozymandias” with a decrepit,
disquieting edge. Shattered and mournful like Shelley’s sonnet,
it’s a sepulchral environment that depicts the ravages of human
delusion amid shards of broken pottery, listing shelves, snapped
gilded scaffolding and stalactites of gold. Built over eight months
at MASS MoCA, Filthy Lucre exhibits the same dimensions as
Leyland’s drawing room save for the ceiling, which is lower
by two feet, intensifying the claustrophobic sense of people
trapped inside their own egos.
One of the sunflower andirons of the iconic room’s fireplace
droops and wilts. As conjured by Waterston, Whistler’s princess,
her head and neck now blooming with ugly spores, presides
over a ravaged kingdom of cheap vessels painted by Waterston
with gestural strokes that suggest bodily fluids and unraveled
internal organs. Cello music drifts through the space, along with
whispered snippets from letters between Whistler and Leyland.
A sulfurous puddle of gilt spills out from under a desk. “I wanted
Filthy Lucre to feel bodily, almost cancerous,” says Waterston.
“There are fluids, cysts, abrasions—but they’re all solid gold.”