20 Jul, 2009

Too cool for art school

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Elizabeth Peyton, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

Elizabeth Peyton – painter of celebrities, celebrity painter. Is there much more to be said? Now in her mid-forties, this native New Yorker has acquired such a reputation for her wan little portraits of pop stars, art stars, dealers and collectors that her society status appears almost indivisible from theirs.

In a sense, Peyton is the painterly equivalent of photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller, so completely a part of the very world they record for magazines as well as art museums. And in fact she also takes, and exhibits, photos of her friends; Marc Jacobs, Chloë Sevigny, Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, faces skimmed from social occasions. The curator of a recent show called these somewhat insouciant (and often poorly exposed) shots “acts of devotion”, which is striking precisely because this is the exact claim people always make for her paintings.

But the question raised by the paintings, as opposed to the photographs, is how can one possibly tell?

Peyton’s portraits sound like a fan’s visions, sure enough. Liam and Noel Gallagher imagined in their Sunday best on their mum’s sofa; Liam in violet-blue shadow; Liam in flowers; Jarvis delicately offering Liam a light. Kurt Cobain in white, silver, as a child, with his favourite cat, as a blanched and beautiful face – not too far from reality.

All these paintings are based on spreads from the NME, Rolling Stone and so forth. The translation into oil paint involves flattening, cropping and a kind of whimsical simplification, not so radical that the star is no longer recognisable, nor so streamlined you could really call it stylish. The main effect is simply of homogeneity. All these famous figures – no matter how individual, how young or old, solitary, tormented, cheerful or gregarious, no matter what profession or sex – share a family resemblance. They all look like Elizabeth Peytons.

Which means weightless, elfin, sharp-nosed, heads slightly too big for skimpy bodies, women as waifs, men as lost boys. It is the same only more so in Peyton’s gamine self-portraits. Thin as paint, the paint itself washy and dilute, her figures look too weak to peel a grape. And the pictures they appear in are so small, not much bigger than a magazine shot, as to imply a certain candid intimacy.

But if someone told you Peyton’s cute little picture of Sid Vicious and his dear old mum was actually ironic, you could so easily believe it. Or her pictures of Elizabeth II as a winsome teenager: mightn’t these be deliberately kitsch? Does she really and indiscriminately revere Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, Prince Harry and Oscar Wilde’s treacherous lover Bosie?

These three appear in paintings but also in drawings – Peyton’s great forte – with more than a hint of Max Beerbohm in their elegant and witty concision. And not just Beerbohm, but Ingres, Holbein and David Hockney; so perhaps it is here that one finds the true act of devotion, not to mention humour.

The paintings, on the other hand, are weedy, with their drips and mimsy swipes. The palette runs from chalk-white to vampirical scarlet and purple. Sometimes the paint is laid on in thin brown smears reminiscent of nothing so much as dirty protests, sometimes in a paste that lies on the board like tile grout. Reproductions don’t convey these nasty sensations.

Why any self-respecting painter would set out to be quite so feeble has never been obvious, but so many have done so in the last three decades that safety in numbers has long since set in. Feebleness is not so much a coincidence by now as a movement, the success of each artist reinforcing the next. Peyton was among the first, at the forefront of all those American women like Karen Kilimnik and Lisa Yuskavage who have created such a strong market out of deliberate weakness. She is by far the best, or at least the most interesting.

This show, beautifully installed in galleries the height of a church, the tiny paintings set far apart to emphasise the supposed analogy with icons, includes a couple of really fine works. One is a spry portrait of David Hockney in which the trademark glasses are swimming-pool deep. The other is a version of Delacroix’s formidably hieratic self-portrait in the Louvre, all high collar and prim moustache, which Peyton crops into a sepia close-up thus removing the French painter’s remoteness and edging him closer to photo-real presence.

It is conceptually clever, but more than that it exudes actual feeling; as if this modern painter in cool, hip, Manhattan had some real empathy with the solitary and secretive genius of 19th-century romanticism and had found a way to unlock him.

Still, this is not a very high yield from a 20-year survey. And there are plenty of works here that do not rise to anything as big as an idea, paintings that try out other artists’ styles as if they were fashion accessories. Some are as twee as anything by the girly Karen Kilimnik; others like outright pastiches of the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans.

And in the end, the overall tone is so hard to read that one even begins to doubt the sincerity of her aim. Peyton has often said she cannot paint anyone she does not admire, but the only consistent visual proof of this admiration is the constancy of her attention. It is one thing to be devoted to people, another to be preoccupied by painting.

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