Elizabeth Peyton - Blue Liam (1996)

Elizabeth Peyton at Regen Projects

Elizabeth Peyton is a youngish NY artist whose much-hyped loosely-painted portraits of pretty, androgynous men - some of them celebrities, some of them friends - have been lauded for their supposed iconic quality. Described as ‘swooning’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘poetic’, the paintings are said to embrace and embody a new post-critical way of making art, one that translates the confectionery disposability of popular culture into objects of unironic reverence. Painting in loose softly expressionist brushstrokes of heavily thinned unmixed oil paints on linen or paper caked with a glossy white ground, Peyton’s work translates the thrown-off spontaneity of a plein-air watercolor sketch into a more substantial medium, creating pictures suffused with longing and an alas-the-wilted-rose terror of aging.

The roots of Peyton’s work lie in the sinuous linearity of art nouveau, a movement that planted a depth charge of polymorphous sensuality in every bourgeois living room. The androgyny and idealized remove of her figures and her exaggerated curvilinear brushwork are typical of the radical aesthetic dandyism that, 100 years ago, undermined the sexually repressed hetero-patriarchal authoritarianism of the Victorian era and empowered successive generations with sexier, slinkier and more funkily organic way of looking at the world. But that was a hundred years ago. Like the radical formalist restructuring of vision that attended the Impressionist painters, Art Nouveau has come to signify little more than an all-around ‘niceness’ which can be sampled for posters or calendars or fridge magnets, attached to the appropriate vertical surface and never encountered again.

This angstless spin on Egon Schiele became an illustration cliché in print advertisments of the 50’s and 60’s (one of the most illustrious proponents being the young Andy Warhol), and was even then encoded with some of the repressed collective feminine psychic content that was to burst forth in the psychedelic and sexual revolutions of the 60’s and 70s. Peyton’s images, in spite of their superficial Uber-innocuousness, possess a sinister undercurrent of the drive to recloset the scary grown-up sexuality that truly challenging contemporary popular culture handles with increasing aplomb.

Ham-handed watercolor sketches from projected photos done in thinned out oils straight from the tube, supposedly presented without irony and devoid of any art historical or wider cultural interpretations that don’t snap before they’re stretched halfway. The concept: famous pretty boys are pretty. Fawning lickspittle at the shrine of celebrity narcissism. Allow me to hold your mirror, Mr. Gallagher, Sir. Shall I smear on a little more Vaseline? I used to think Alex Katz’s vacuous celebrity portraiture might drag down Andy Warhol’s reputation but never imagined that my sympathies would be inverted, that Katz’s own work could be made to look well-painted and positively skeptical. Sappy manipulative kitsch that looks like bad magazine ad illustration from the early 60’s may seem sad or sweet or funny or nostalgic to someone who can’t or won’t remember the last 40 years of art history, but in that case why not watch reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” and save yourself 20 grand?

Apart from the obvious libidinal mooning against which no critical engagement can compete, the buzz on Elizabeth Peyton hovers around old and inappropriate ‘so bad its good’ routines, cutting edge in their ability to outrage hard-line abstract painters (Oooh! This’ll finally put Clement Greenburg in his place!). Or, most amazingly, around an apparent belief that these are remarkably accomplished paintings on a technical level. This is indicative of the degree to which we rely on what we’re told rather than our own senses. The main effect of the limbo to which painting has been sentenced for the last 30 years has been to allow the curve of art world influence to be filled up with people who know nothing about the medium, and are ignorant even of their ignorance. A willingness to make a fool of yourself is essential to creativity, but you have to be at least aware of the possibility for it to be an act of bravery.

Perhaps the audacity of presenting such slightly pretty art without the usual buttressing of pseudo-intellectual apologia is to be admired. But the hesitancy and brevity even Peyton’s supporters show in advocating her work, in the sense of presenting an intelligible, rebuttable argument for its significance, is most simply explained by the manifest paucity of meaningful formal or conceptual content about which to speak.

The only rationale for supporting Peyton’s work that finally holds its water is that the desire to look at representational images of sexy people is, in some lofty circles, an unjustly disparaged motive for visual engagement. Given that such circles are small and shrinking and long out of fashion, and that 99% of Western visual culture is devoted to just such images, it seems like that particular struggle will get by just fine without the help of the art world. Art, if it exists as a category of special activity at all, has to do things that the non-art world can’t. The non-art world may often produce the best art (there is more of everything attributed to Elizabeth Peyton in a single Silver Tab jeans billboard, and then some), but the art world can no longer just make copies of things in the non-art world, put them on a wall, and expect meaning to just fall from the sky. You can’t knock down the same wall twice. And if you want to jack off to a picture of Leonardo diCaprio, you can buy an Amy Adler or subscription to Tiger Beat for a lot less money.

Doug Harvey is aware of the possibility that he is making a fool of himself.

Published in Art issues. Jan/Feb 2000