Inman Gallery, Houston, TX
April 10 – May 23, 2015
Waterston’s new works on paper, named Pavo after the peacock’s genus, extend Filthy Lucre into a more nebulous realm. Where Whistler bounded his spectacle in a decorative motif, Waterston feels no such constraint. The stylized flowers, blue-green palette, and peacocks are unmistakably Whistler’s, but the dimension they inhabit is a vaporous primeval fever-dream, perpetually reinventing itself. Acid pink mists, sprays of ink and gouache, black blooms of acrylic, and mutating animal hybrids swallow and reconfigure the original Victorian ornaments. The ambition that first took root in Leyland’s dining room is at the point of being overripe.
How much is too much? In 1904, industrialist Charles Lang Freer moved The Peacock Room to his home in Detroit, ushering Whistler’s masterpiece into the American Gilded Age. Waterston notes the parallel between that time and our own, but back then the excesses of Aestheticism had a rebellious undercurrent: the buttoned-up Victorian social order needed a shot of libertine exuberance, a return of the repressed. In our own time that release has been co-opted into a complacent acquisitiveness. Is unapologetically permissive art still worthwhile?
Waterston’s use of the peacock’s scientific name is worth noting here. It reminds us that a peacock is an animal after all. Whistler had little use for unmediated nature; he saw it as raw material, unremarkable without an artist’s intervention. And his peacocks, though dazzling, have none of the mystery and menace of a real, living creature. By contrast, Waterston’s birds, sometimes barely recognizable, are palpably animate. His paintings flutter, squabble, sprout and rot with a liveliness that too much refinement would extinguish.
In taking on The Peacock Room, and with Filthy Lucre especially, Waterston both honors and questions Whistler’s extravagance without passing final judgment. There is real value to unfettered creative expression, but headstrong self-advancement can sometimes go too far. The Pavo works retain that ambiguity while suggesting another system entirely. They supplant dysfunctional social Darwinism with real animal struggle, and ruinous economic cycles with more primordial forces. Waterston’s world is definitely scarier than Whistler’s. It is more candid about the bargain between art and commerce, and strikes a truer balance between creation and destruction. But underneath that decay is a primal vitality that, while threatening, is also promising.