Channeling Whistler’s ‘Peacock Room’ at Launch LA
by Genie Davis
Without Design or Sketch: The Story of The Room at Launch LA through October 1st is an immersive experience. Organized by a trio of curators called Rough Play, the rich and fascinating, fully transformed galley features work by Alex Anderson, Beatriz Cortez, Krysten Cunningham, Ashley Hagen, Carla Jay Harris, Jane Hugentober, Malisa Humphrey, Janna Ireland, Cole James, Shoshi Kanokohata and Taidgh O’Neill, Annelie McKenzie, Thinh Nguyen, Joel Otterson, Christopher Reynolds, Jackie Rines, Emily Sudd, Christian Tedeschi, Elizabeth Tinglof, Kim Truong, Axel Wilhite, Robert Wilhite, Emily Wiseman, and Kim Ye.
Their exhibition is an homage to James Abbot McNeill Whistler and the Aesthetic Movement. To fully appreciate it, a little history lesson is important.
The event that inspired this exhibition took place in 1865, when the Aesthetic Movement in Britain held forth the idea that art should be divorced from any motive other than visual beauty, James Abbot McNeill Whistler was one such artist who fully embraced this concept. In Whistler’s view, the creation and interpretation of art was the responsibility of the artist, and art should improve even upon nature itself. Aestheticism was the precursor of early modern art and Art Nouveau.
Vividly portraying Aesthetic Movement dictums, Whistler’s painting La Princesse du pays de la porcelain was commissioned by shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, for his London dining room. Both Leyland and his home’s architect trusted Whistler, and allowed him to work without supervision. Free of constraint, Whistler created a large work in a blue and gold palette, going far beyond the limits of his commission. Whistler proclaimed he painted without design or sketch, but was sure that his work would please his patron. But alas, it did not, Leyland refused to pay his bill, although he eventually paid half. Whistler’s response was to add another element to his work: a mural of two peacocks confronting each other with coins at their feet. This portion of his work he titled twice, as Art and Money or The Story of the Room. Whistler’s complete dining room artwork itself has subsequently been referred to as Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room.
With that in mind the Rough Play turned Launch Gallery into their own version of the room, following Whistler’s lead with the idea of creating without design or sketch. They have even re-painted the gallery walls in blue. It’s an awe inspiring exhibition, packed with gorgeous pieces, including Ashley Hagen’s cabinet constructed of glass and wood, miniature bricks, stuffed animals, foam, and gold leaf, a decadently beautiful piece, I See Myself In You. Kim Ye’s delicate blue Entice to Ensnare also captivates, its pattern mesmerizing, its form a kind of artistic Venetian blind covering an imaginary window. Carla Jay Harris’ blue and white china bowls are mounted on a wall, each featuring images such as a duo of paired guns. Co-curator Elizabeth Tinglof’s gold-leaf covered folding chair sits in perfect juxtaposition to Thinh Nguyen’s delicate pink flowers flowing in strands from the ceiling. Kim Truong’s single-planed portrayal of fine china – an ode to the china Whistler’s patron had envisioned his dining room as holding – is white on one side, blue on the other, creating a wonderful visual dichotomy, and a play on dimension. Encased in Plexiglas topped by light bulbs, Christian Tedeschi’s green plant takes on a whole new dimension, one that implicates time and space.
The installation is both lush and functional. Viewers are invited to go beyond simply looking, and have an involving, interactive experience. They can sit on the gilded folding chair, walk on the rug beneath those delicate pink paper flowers, recline on an embroidered, ornate circular bench.
According to Rough Play’s Tinglof, the artists’ took over Launch – with gallery owner James Panozzo’s full permission – and had“a completely different outcome than that experienced by Whistler and his patron,” she laughs.
“We started with Whistler’s Peacock Room, and the idea of artists’ taking over and not having permission. Whistler really felt that artists could make art more beautiful than reality. He coined the expression ‘art for arts sake,’” she explains. “We are still asking many of the same questions today as those posed in Whistler’s time. Is it okay to make something beautiful, do patrons have valid decisions, is it okay to create a piece of art without permission? Whistler was very contemporary in his ideas.”
Although following in Whistler’s footsteps, Rough Play formed their own aesthetic. “We decided to have many artists, not just one,” Tinglof says. “It was very untraditional to just take over the space, all of us creating, but it was a successful journey. There wasn’t any ego involved. Some of the artists here even arranged each other’s art, they exchanged pieces and put pieces together.”
The warmth and lushness of this exhibition absolutely offers a deeply cogent and winning argument for “art for art’s sake.” Enter this room and engage.
You can still see Without Design or Sketch: The Story of The Room at Launch LA through this Saturday, October 1st.