Elizabeth Peyton is still in love. But it’s a different kind of love, and she wants you to know it. This is the subject, and the subtext, of her fourth solo show, which is more disjointed than previous exhibitions. Mingled among Peyton’s jewel-colored, lighter-than-air, idealizing portraits are nearly two dozen photographs of the people from her world—her friends, fellow artists, and art dealers. This tactic doesn’t totally work to Peyton’s advantage. It creates a jarring alternation between the reverie of her paintings, and the reality of the photographs—but it makes a point.
Peyton is trying to take her name back; she wants to change the “read” on her work, which until now—and of her own making—has been all fantasy and light. Even the press release quotes art critics—me included—describing her paintings as “swoony,” “majestic,” and “about fashion and beauty.”
Peyton was only 29 at the time of her second solo show in New York, in 1995, so while her love was fresh, not surprisingly, it was also innocent, immaculate, and with the adoration of a fan—a female fan, in particular.
Peyton was transfixed by these fucked-up, androgynous, needs-a-mom boys, whether the clan of the junkie damned (Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley), or the young princelings and faunlets of rock (Beck, Liam Gallagher, and Jarvis Cocker). But she painted them with a fluid, sexy touch that negated issues of illustration or kitsch, and helped melt the ice that had formed around painting in the early 1990s. Somehow, Peyton was entirely in her moment and her own mind at the same time: here and there. It was strange and enticing, but it was also limited.
Peyton must have sensed this. Around 1997, she tried to deepen her work by adding artists and art-world associates to her repertoire of rockers and royals. She wanted to let people know this wasn’t just “girl stuff” or puppy love—that these people were real, and she loved them. Ironically, the new work was read as more ethereal, cliquish, and post-Warholian. She was painting real heroes but everyone saw them as romantic apparitions. Of course it didn’t help that she painted like an angel and made all her men look angelic. Her work was about love, but it felt like she kept it at an idealizing arm’s length. Alluring and blissful, her art lacked gravity—in a way, it lacked life.
Peyton’s work is in a holding pattern, however; the combination of the paintings and the photographs suggests that she is trying to get psychologically closer to love. It’s a gutsy move for an artist who could have coasted through this show. But does it work, and is it enough?
When it comes to the paintings, you have to look close. Three or four are as good as any she has made. One, of the German rocker Jochen Distelmayer, is a knockout: a through-a-crowded-party portrait of this rose-lipped redhead, who looks at you with these baby blues so intensely that you almost blush. It’s delicate and gorgeous, but there’s still something fairy-tale about it. There are also five images of her latest muse, sensitive indie rocker turned star Elliott Smith; the one of him sitting, slouched on a bench, is the best. Otherwise, in these images, Peyton’s up to her old from-afar deification. These boys are beautiful but inaccessible.
Two of the paintings, however, suggest something more realistic. One is of Colin de Land. Who is de Land? Since 1980, the owner of American Fine Arts, but art dealer doesn’t describe him. He’s sort of the Keith Richards of the art world—a warhorse and the real thing. Renegade individualist and disheveled dream boat, de Land is painted sitting in Peyton’s studio. He wears a fantastic gray knit Yankees cap inside out, and sits in a dazzling yellow chair. You can see from the nearby photographs of him that she has made him much younger and paler. But he is a real person in a real place. In this painting, and one other little one of de Land, Peyton makes her big move, although it’s so subtle you may have missed it. She is replacing the starry-eyed fantasy with a more complex fiction.
The other work that hints at this shift is a large, almost abstract watercolor of Prince Harry. It’s true that royals are like rock stars, but instead of painting William, the future king, she’s chosen Harry, the eternal prince. Harry is the ultimate needs-a-mom boy, and she depicts him with simple dignity. Like de Land, Harry will probably never be a king, but both are glorious in their fashion. Strangely, Harry looks a lot like Peyton. Judging from her paintings, Peyton often fancies herself a boy. In her art, she hangs out with the lads—semi-invisible, one of them, and yet, not. Perhaps she can get close because there is no threat of sex. But love is in the air. Peyton signs one drawing of Elliott Smith with a tiny E—their shared initial. You can see a genuine struggle with this real/imaginary, close/far dilemma.
That, I think, is why the photographs are here: to draw these fantasies into reality; to show you the things she loves actually exist. Her shiny Cibachromes are nothing special. I wouldn’t want to own one. But installed with the paintings, they reveal an intricate approach/avoidance dance with intimacy. It starts from afar, goes to a middle distance, and in three or four pictures, ends up face-to-face—which for Peyton is pretty shocking.
There are two photos taken from behind and far away. One is of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, the other is of the artist Craig Wadlin—both men she has painted before. This is the Peyton of 1993–97. The love is there, but it’s nonthreatening. Until recently, in fact, she seemed capable only of looking at men who were not looking at her, as if eye contact would be too intense.
In another telling shot, Peyton moves closer—though she still hovers just out of harm’s way—as she gazes at a group of boys on a London street. You’d have to be an insider to know this, or be told, but this is a portrait of a number of young men who are having their day in the art world—they’re all on the rise. Among them is the painter Peter Doig (her first balding subject, I might add), critic-curator Matthew Higgs, Martin McGeown and Andrew Wheatley of London’s Cabinet Gallery, and her friend and art dealer Gavin Brown. You can see how she hangs on every moment, how she loves being here, now; but when you compare these faces to the faces she paints, you can see the moment passing. These men aren’t just pretty boys; they’re mature, they work hard, are not otherworldly or especially decadent, and they are aging. Throughout this exhibition Peyton is showing you a generation coming to power.
All this can make her art seem clubbish or like an imitation of Billy Name’s Warhol Factory photos. But Peyton simply shows you her world and her process; shows herself edging closer, living life, not just painting it. She’s trying to show you that, while she embellishes life, she’s not pretending. She has to push her paintings further, but she seems to want to discard and interrupt the girl-fan thing. And while her images may be mediated by a photographic or fictional distance, her love is real, and getting more so.