Spring Mix

W‘s arts and culture director’s must-see for May.

Peacock Room

May is the season of blockbuster art auctions, so what better time to contemplate the tensions between art and commerce, patron and artist, beauty and the cost of realizing it? Opening this month at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C., Filthy Lucre, an installation by the artist Darren Waterston, reimagines the Peacock Room, an extravagant 19th-century dining hall painted by James McNeill Whistler, as a florid ruin undone by drama and excess. (Think Grey Gardens glutted with color and crockery, minus the clutter and the stench.) Considered an icon of the Gilded Age, the Peacock Room, with its lacquered ceiling and copious gold leaf, bears evidence of one of the era’s greatest art feuds. When Whistler and his patron, the shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland, argued over ideas and fees, the friendship ended. The artist bore half the cost of the work, and then painted their enmity onto Leyland’s walls in the form of two battling peacocks. The exhibition, “Peacock Room Remix” (through January 2, 2017), lets visitors experience Whistler’s storied environment (permanently installed at the Freer) alongside Waterston’s absorbing rumination on its fraught history. “I wanted to explore the underbelly of beauty,” Waterston says, “and how the monstrous and deformed reside so closely to our own aesthetic pleasures. Beauty is filled with contradictions.”