Ben Lewis really likes Elizabeth Peyton who’s retrospective moved from New York to London recently
The 43-year-old American belongs to a group of fabulously successful painters who emerged in the last decade. They led a return to traditional figurative painting but they were also conceptual. They didn’t just paint paintings, they also painted painting itself, deliberately working in an existing mode, as if they were quoting or sampling. Peyton’s contemporaries include Glenn Brown, whose works appear to have been painted in the thick impasto style of Frank Auerbach but on closer inspection have totally flat surfaces, like photorealist copies of Auerbach. Then there is Luc Tuymans, the godfather of this trend, who works in an insipid and hesitant amateur style. The godmother is Karen Kilimnik, who does slushy romantic oil paintings of princes on horses and country mansions that make you think of Barbara Cartland novels.
It was a neat art-historical development just right for the end of the last century. Just as Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol appropriated mass-produced pop culture icons, so these new painters were appropriating ready-made painting styles.
Like the items that pop artists used, these painting styles were considered kitsch, incompetent and valueless, but the conceptual painters fine-tuned them, in difficult-to-define ways, into a highly refined aesthetic.
Few do it better than Peyton. She is a brilliant painter, coherent and classic in her style, economic and disciplined in her means. She has made the medium of oil on board her own, using the thinnest of paint and scratchiest of brushes, as if she is painting ghosts. You can virtually count the 150-odd brushstrokes with which she makes each work. Who cannot fall in love with the joyous array of bright lines of colour with which she conjures up jars of pencils in Spencer Drawing (2000) or the fire of reds and oranges in Julian (2003)?
Jackie Wullschlager is less impressed:
The sense of a privileged class slumbering its way into oblivion is Peyton’s unique contribution to 21st-century portraiture, though her methods are in no way formally inventive. Stylisation, economy of line, sharp angles and tightly cropped close-ups reminiscent of snapshots are all derived from either David Hockney or Alex Katz – and make you long for the vigour and rigour of either – while the androgynous neutrality of most of her cast is a Warhol legacy. Among historical figures, it is interesting how often Peyton chooses those associated with homosexuality, and imbues them with pathos: “Flowers and Diaghilev”, “Ludwig II of Bavaria”, depicted in a variety of extravagant gestures, caressing a bust of Marie Antoinette, parading in Versailles. A purple-hued “Silver Bosie” wishes Oscar Wilde’s nemesis into a kinder, gentler figure than history records.
Like Stella Vine, a similarly arrested adolescent painter, Peyton is an illustrator and a fabulist, conjuring a fin-de-siècle fairytale from the way we live now. The ink drawing “Kings and Queens” depicts a 19th-century woman surveying a royal canvas in gilt frame: an intent look at looking. In self-portraits, Peyton depicts herself reading, absorbed in a fictive world that protects her from the need to engage with us.
Except that her half-fictions do tell half-truths – about our craving-yet-distrust for painterly beauty, about the allure of portraiture long after the formal society on which it was built has disintegrated. The single best painting in this show is the chill, chiselled, vampirish “Zoe’s Kurt” – a vanishing act in which skin and hair fade to a whiter shade of pale, the body is dashed with weeping trickles of paint, the jacket is a dance of abstracted red marks and only crimson magazine-fantasy lips remain in focus. Does Peyton critique or merely comply with the virtual realities of our image-overload, celebrity-drenched times? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: though she is maddeningly self-absorbed, sickeningly ingratiating, her decadence is our decadence, and in her convalescent subjects lie her theme and her battle – the disappearing of a tradition.
Elizabeth Peyton is Pin-Up Painter (This is London)
Elizabeth Peyton at the Whitechapel Gallery (Financial Times)