Elizabeth Peyton

In life, Elizabeth Peyton truly finds her art.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Photograph: Courtesy The Artist/Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

To paint people is to watch them grow old on an infinitesimally small scale of time; sitting for an artist is one of the more vulnerable activities around. That is the truth of portraiture and the reason why I’ve been disinclined to like Elizabeth Peyton’s work. Although allusions to Warhol abound because of Peyton’s penchant for portraying the skinny art and media glitterati, her equally thin way of painting tended to leave me feeling high and dry: Instead of being receptive to the emotive qualities of her subjects, I wondered if her connection to them was real. More important, there has also always been a perplexing split in her oeuvre—between depicting friends who pose for her, and working from magazine photos and movie stills of high-profile actors and celebrities. It’s difficult to be wooed by a painting when you feel unsure of the emotional investment of the artist. In this latest exhibition of Peyton’s work at Gavin Brown, her inconsistency seems only more galling because the truth of the matter is, Peyton can really paint.

This collection of small works (the largest is 14" x 11") mixes portraits with a few still lifes and one cityscape. This last, NYC 2008, is breathtakingly beautiful. The limpidity of the pigment allows the support to glow through, while Peyton’s slanted perspective harnesses the measured energy of a bustling street in the West Village. When Peyton hits the mark in a portrait, it resonates clear across the room with a knowing hum of sharing. In Matthew March, for instance, she marries economy of gesture to generosity of paint (as opposed to the wateriness of many of her likenesses), using a muted but rich and dense palette of deep-blue and mud tones. By contrast, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis smooching in a scene from The Age of Innocence leaves you feeling like the guy who takes his space helmet off in Britney Spears’s video for “Oops!… I Did It Again”—pulled in by the promise of real love, but left standing with dick in hand. The cloying subject matter is a turnoff, and the painting itself is much less interesting than many others here.

NYC 2008; Pati at Home

Photograph: Courtesy The Artist/Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Yet real feeling is not entirely absent in this show. The bond that Peyton shares with Pati, a young woman who figures in three separate works, is clear even in the rapidly rendered pastel and pencil one-off entitled simply Pati Sleeping, and equally so in the other quiet moments in which she’s captured. A nearby pastel of Bob Dylan seems overworked in comparison.

This gap in effect makes you wonder why Peyton even feels the need to include images such as Diaghilev, a portrait of the dance impresario rendered in annoyingly staccato brushstrokes that substitute cursory and shallow for fresh and quick, alongside the stunning still life Flowers and Diaghilev. The latter’s scarlet anemones, placed next to a book on the Ballet Russes, all but throb in the space. One appreciates the artist’s desire to pay homage to the sources of her inspiration, but next to the subjects with which she has had in-the-flesh relationships, her found images seem a bit sophomoric and out of place, like a tweener’s wall-poster tributes to Miley Cyrus.

The Age of Innocence

Photograph: Courtesy The Artist/Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Generally, such paintings and drawings just aren’t done as well as the ones from life. Peyton has the good fortune of having a dealer who knows how to present her work—even with 21 pieces in the space, each one benefits from being given a wide expanse of wall. Given the gems in this show, it’s hard to buy into the metanarrative, advanced by some critics, which constitutes the main praise for Peyton’s work: that the artist’s cursory style and content constitute a commentary on contemporary values. In this show, Peyton appears to turn away from conveying a pop-cultural demimonde that may be relevant to the art world, but is increasingly losing global appeal. Instead, she seems to be answering the lure of painting as a private act, which makes one think of another pop-song quotation: “Now that we’ve found love, what are we gonna do with it?”

Gavin Brown’s enterprise, through May 17, 2008