Elizabeth Peyton: “Live Forever” at the New Museum.
By Catherine Ghim
“Live Forever”: Elizabeth Peyton
8 October 2008 through 11 January 2009
New York, NY 10002
Not just anyone can become the subject of a painting by Elizabeth Peyton. Like competing in a beauty pageant, first and foremost, one cannot be fat. No elasti-band jeans allowed in Peyton’s world. In addition to lithe, sylph-like beauty, one must also possess talent. Preferably some type of unattainable talent, the kind that one can only be born with, not achieved. The type of talent that’s unfairly distributed to those who deserve it the least, like Calvin Klein underwear models. Try becoming a musical genius, a British royal, or Suri Cruise and the effort will most likely result in disappointment. It doesn’t hurt to have a drug problem either. If you have all that but have fallen to an untimely, tragic death via suicide or guillotine, it doesn’t matter. You’re in with all the other cool kids.
It’s impossible to deny the allure of this world inhabited by a brat pack assemblage of glamorous, moody characters. But who wouldn’t want to hang out with Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marc Jacobs, Napoleon, Susan Sontag, Jarvis Cocker or Marie Antoinette? Lines taken from Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 and 56 have been blown up on the wall of the exhibition, and state the exhibition's raison d'etre. “Live Forever” is a profession of Peyton's love for those who fall within this fortunate circle. She is compelled to make the ultimate attempt to immortalize her subjects with lovingly rendered mini-portraits of celebrities, friends and lovers. Her work has matured from her early historical-crushes on Napoleon, Ludwig II of Bavaria and Marie Antoinette. She's moved onto modern heartbreakers like Pete Doherty, Marc Jacobs, Jarvis Cocker, John Lennon and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. The women in her portraits also possess that strikingly cool inner confidence—such as Susan Sontag, Georgia O’Keefe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Frida Kahlo—and are given the same smitten treatment of Peyton's brush.
More than a lover of status, fame or protruding collar bones, she is an admirer of beauty, cultural beacons, topped by some tragic history. One can argue Warhol also had a thing for the beautiful and the damned. But what she lacks in Warholian objectivity, she makes up for in tenderness and sincerity. This is a rare, jewel-like attribute in our economically morose, post-ironic times. Whether painting a lover in a room at the Chateau Marmont or John Lennon lounging on a couch, Peyton possesses the ability to make us feel we are right there with her, sharing a deep, collective sigh. Brooding and pouting are the most common activities among Peyton’s subjects. One could also argue that US Weekly already provides access to the impermeable world of celebrity. But beyond voyeurism, Peyton's work marks a return to the pleasure of looking. Hers is a gaze cast in radiant adoration, with none of the critical judgment and scorn. In her loving hands, her subjects are elevated to the celestial, not pecked to shreds like bird feed in toxic hen nest, or a guest star on The View.
Were Peyton were a film director, it's safe to venture that her films would resemble that of Sofia Coppola's. Peyton’s portraits are imbued with a similar sence of delicious melancholy and lush moodiness. She too, is a creator of self-possessed cool boys and girls lost in dreamy reveries (paging Kirsten Dunst!) to the soundtrack of cooler indie-rock bands you’ve never heard of. Fallen to the trappings of glamour and far too much navel-gazing, they spend most of their screen time isolated from the world around them as the greatest students of themselves. The lithesome, androgynous boys that appear more frequently than the girls, resemble a casting call sheet by Gus van Sant. They are the kind of boys who can fit into their girlfriend’s jeans and make it look cool, not gay. Their dark eyebrows, fine-boned features and porcelain pallor are romantic, worryingly fragile, and point to Anglo-Saxon origins. All subjects are distinguished by a jaded attitude of having seen it all, done it all, and smoked it all. Track-marked and withdrawn (or actually going through withdrawal), what better expression of the hung-over spirit of our deflated times than Peyton's portraits?
Their side cast gazes are imbued with a sense of internal contemplation—of what we’re not sure—and appear to be sighing with the mopey ennui of a world-weary rock star. They lie on chaises in London, hotel rooms in Paris and poolside in LA, chain smoking, with occasional glances at the mirror or their slumbering lover. They aren’t posing; these are valid snapshots of people doing things people do when they think no one is looking. These candids give us the voyeuristic pleasure of experiencing the intimacy of having an moment with the subject with their guard down—a subject who just so happens to be a celebrity, and accustomed to being photographed, ogled and objectified on a daily basis. The celebrity factor elevates what could be a very ordinary and dull moment for a mere mortal, to a significant moment in which important existential questions are possibly being raised. It is not up to the audience to judge whether or not their engrossing thoughts are significant or superficial. Much like the metropolitan pleasure-seekers captured in the "Floating World" of Japanese Edo-period Ukiyo-e paintings from the 17th century, this shallow quality makes looking all the more pleasurable. Without knowing it, Peyton’s subjects disclose the most personal of moments of their lives. These are rare birds on view and it’s impossible not to be seduced by their exotic melancholy and blue dreaminess. We too, wish to participate in Le Grande Sigh of their half-lidded expressions and tortured anguish of having to cope with the isoation that comes from such sexy, urbane lives.
Instant superficial satisfaction is gained by their beauty, and Peyton’s celebration and loving embrace of popular culture. Is it better to burn out or to fade away? Peyton’s answer to this rhetorical question is with her paintings of Kurt Cobain, whose light extinguished too early for his fans to accept, and before Peyton began to distill his beauty with watercolor. Her work is a testament to beautiful creatures of tragedy, a sort of eulogy that pays respect to spirits where she believes it's due. These various members of rock bands, royalty and heads of state were not hindered by vices, like say, heroin. We're meant to barely register these “lifestyle choices” as unfortunate minutae from their legendary lives.
It's easy to feel justified in our knowledge of their personal lives and consequently feel a connection despite never having met them. Desire dictates Peyton’s attention to her subjects. Like the notion of living forever, it's only natural to want what one cannot have. They are artfully disillusioned, heads tilted askance and eyes cast down to skillfully avoiding contact, sometimes even their backs are turned to us. But it doesn’t prevent us from falling in love with them all the same, just as Peyton has. This glows through the luminous vibrancy of her colors and brushstrokes—both of which display masterful command and dexterity. Perhaps in a nod to Masters of color and line, such as Matisse and Parmigianno, Peyton’s understanding of hue and skill as a draftsperson are indisputable. We can’t help but participate in the amorous adoration of these coquettishly aloof creatures. They are renderings of strangers, but we love them all the same, and perhaps even more for it.
Peyton paints in the minor key to the tragic tune of beauty that’s been deprived of something—unrequited love, a promising life cut prematurely, a happy childhood, or carlories. Cast in a halo of mournful glow and loss (and perhaps malnutrition), the cheekbones and acid-hues of Peyton’s subjects grow impressively sharper and saintly. It's as if Peyton’s subjects have been carved away by life itself, and the exquiste burden of their own existence, sort of like Jesus. While it's doubtful Jesus would have fallen victim to the carb-induced plight of modern hetero-males (i.e. beer guts), it is interesting to note how The Messiah is also always depicted with a perfect BMI. Peyton’s subjects may not feel the pain of the world, but no less are adored with precious care and solicitous affection by their biggest fan. In small scale, these portraits act as tokens of tribute, offered in admiration at the feet of these earthly gods. It’s worth noting Peyton never works on commission, driven only by the naked determination to immortalize her amour du jours. The tragic story here is that the humanity of her subjects is precisely what prevents them from transcending our realm. After all, they too are bound by laws of gravity and consequently must remain on the King Louis XIV chaise they so depressively and beautifully languor upon.
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Catherine Ghim is a freelance writer in New York.