Elizabeth Peyton at The New Museum

Elizabeth Peyton, Zoe’s Kurt (1995), oil on board, 14″ x 11″; courtesy The New Museum

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The forty-three-year-old artist Elizabeth Peyton, now the subject of Live Forever, a mid-career retrospective at The New Museum, gained notoriety for her portraits of friends, fellow artists, movie stars, and rock musicians. Her paintings are small—about the scale of a coffee table book. They’re scrubby; Peyton uses more turp than oil, working on a garish and oddly dirtied palette. The brushwork is cursory, and the compositions—well, what compositions? Pictorial invention consists of replicating snapshot likenesses. Peyton primes each canvas with broad swipes of gesso applied with a palette knife. Surface physicality is guaranteed, not achieved. This is a lazy painter.

Peyton’s cast of celebrities—Matthew Barney and Georgia O’Keeffe, no less than Johnny Depp and Leonardo di Caprio— accounts for a degree of accessibility, but the work comments on very little. The insights of an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein look positively Tocquevillian in comparison. Instead, Peyton blankets her subjects in soppy adolescent longing. A brittle veneer of hipster pretension prevents honest emotion from emerging. The rock star marginalia in a high school student’s notebook may be truer and better crafted.

Peyton doesn’t embody teendom—she paints about it. Similarly, the dashed-off brush-handling looks like it should be painting. Artifice is Peyton’s all. Given her non-existent drawing skills—this is an artist who can’t trace—she’s yet to earn the right to attempt the painterly, forget pulling it off. Her art is manufactured and immensely cynical—its lighter-than-air tenor can’t obscure a wiry vein of condescension. Peyton doesn’t even have the decency of being so-bad-it’s-good. She’s nothing, really.

Portraiture is ostensibly Peyton’s forte, but don’t expect to encounter individuals at The New Museum. Traditional portraiture attempts to divine and fix a person’s character. This pursuit requires effort on the artist’s part, however unappealing or unsavory the subject may be. Peyton can’t imagine a psyche outside of her own; woozy narcissism reigns. Each of her subjects is rendered fey and louche, too cool to care; there’s no peculiarity to them. Given the peculiarity of Kurt Cobain or Sid Vicious—Peyton’s rock star subjects who came to early and ugly deaths—that’s some kind of feat.

The accolades surrounding Peyton’s slack achievement make for eyeball rolling entertainment. Calvin Tomkins’s New Yorker profile of the artist’s “unembarrassed … visual pleasure[s]” gives the term “puff piece” unexpected gravity. The Times claimed Peyton’s “incandescent” oeuvre as a blow for “girly art”—you know, like that arch-girly Giorgio Morandi. Howard Halle, writing in Time Out New York, was more sober in his assessment of Live Forever. He damned Peyton by identifying the defining question asked by her art: “Am I good enough for the cool-kids table?” If it’s been years since you’ve worried about such a thing, then you’ll know how much credence Peyton’s art deserves.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 2009 edition of The New Criterion.

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