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Elizabeth Peyton review

Art National Portrait Gallery , Charing Cross Road Until Sunday January 5 2020 Free
2 out of 5 stars
Elizabeth Peyton review
Elizabeth Peyton 'Portrait at Opera'. © the artist. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

It’s a weird one, because on the surface, Elizabeth Peyton’s work is so traditional it’s almost boring, so simple it’s almost bad. Any one of the paintings in this show would fit neatly into the rest of the NPG’s collection (and some have even been placed upstairs among it). The American artist paints portraits of her friends, her heroes and her life. But the traditionalism, the formality, the whole idea of fitting into the history of portraiture is kind of her point.

You’ll find images here of Liam Gallagher and Kurt Cobain, of Napoleon and Delacroix, of stills from films and scenes from history, of herself and her friends. Some are dark and brooding, others are breezy and light, with soft daubs of lilac and green. Some are formal, some are rough, some ugly, some neat, some bad, some better.

But these portraits, taken together, are like a portrait of portraiture: a love letter to the genre. She’s not trying to show how great her skill is, but how amazing portraiture can be. In the process, this show becomes a paean to her genre, and to her passions.

So it works as a whole. It’s strong, it has a concept that stands ups. But you just can’t get away from the fact that a lot of these paintings are seriously dodgy. Peyton’s odes to historical art are incredibly weak, the darker paintings are teenage and amateurish, and I really don’t ever want to see her paintings of Kurt Cobain or the singer from The Strokes ever again. Also, contemporary artists need to stop putting their work next to older paintings immediately; it makes everyone look stupid. 

As a group, the show works, but as individual paintings, they stink. I think my friend Laura put it best when she said 'I kind of like Elizabeth Peyton. I mean, she paints cute indie boys, what's not to like?' And that's fair, but it's still a weird one, because as much as you might like Peyton’s ideas, the execution just doesn’t come close, and no amount of cute indie boys can save that.


Venue name: National Portrait Gallery
Venue website:
Venue phone: 020 7306 0055
Address: St Martin's Place
Transport: Tube: Charing Cross
Price: free

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