Acquired from the above by David Teiger in 2004
Matthew Higgs, et al., Elizabeth Peyton, New York 2005, p. 217, illustrated in colour
Based on news photographs, Peyton’s painting speaks dually of an individual life and an historical moment. It is a picture of Richards at a fleeting instant, and equally – in hindsight – a cultural watershed that perhaps symbolises the culmination of 1960s utopianism at the cusp of the postmodern era. Transferred into a spectrum of purple hues, the painting equally transcends its specific source to examine the interplay of public and private selves – the person who exists in the world versus the psychological interior. A combination of precise, hard-edged brushstrokes and fluid applications of tone vividly conveys the figure in rapid movement, alone in a crowd. Richards appears both a recognisable icon – followed and photographed – and an elusive being: his attention is averted, and his body and head are sharply delineated against the stream of activity around him, as if momentarily frozen and excised. He is flanked by the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and backed by anonymous hangers-on, and yet his crystalline expression stands out against their fainter, impressionistic faces.
Peyton’s intimate, almost sensual depiction of Richards in intense purple is therefore countered by a sense of his detachment. He is separated from the artist (and viewer) both by time and by his inscrutable reserve. The painting achieves an incongruous push-pull effect, both ‘capturing’ its subject and holding that subject at bay, in a way that is magnified by the use of a photographic source. Peyton’s reference to news photography indeed highlights the mediated quality of the image – we glimpse Richards through the combined filters of time, photography and painting; and yet the immediacy and fluency of her style also paradoxically dismantles those filters to evoke something of the flux of the present-tense.
By transforming a newspaper photograph into an artwork, Peyton moreover examines the status of fine art in a similar fashion to artists such as Richard Prince, whose appropriations of advertisements, and latterly Instagram posts, have forced a re-evaluation of the ‘aura’ traditionally associated with high art. As Matthew Higgs describes, Peyton’s interweaving of dichotomous forms sets into motion a “sense of aesthetic (and cultural) confusion” which echoes the work of the appropriation artists of the 1980s (Matthew Higgs, ‘Introduction’ in: Matthew Higgs Ed., Elizabeth Peyton, New York 2005, p. 15).
Just as Peyton’s work elevates traditionally low-brow images such as paparazzi photographs to achieve a kind of cultural levelling, there is something democratic about her upending of the traditional gendered dynamics of art history. The male subject is viewed here with an intensity and tenderness that inverts the paradigm of the ‘male gaze’ upon the female subject, and yet Peyton’s subject is not a passive cypher. Instead, the cool coloration and sharp linearity of the painting invest Richards with an autonomy and aloofness. He is witnessed in a moment of vulnerability following a harrowing experience. Two days earlier, the Stones had been playing at the celebrated Altamont Freeway, where the Hells Angels had been hired to provide security. Interactions between the audience and the Angels had already become violent by the time the Stones arrived onstage, and soon after their set began, a member of the audience – African-American teenager Meredith Hunter – attempted to run onto the stage. Having been beaten away, Hunter returned with a gun, at which point he was stabbed to death by one of the Angels directly in front of the stage. The media reaction to this event was vehement, with many commentators identifying it as the death of 1960s free-spirited innocence.
Peyton has described the impetus driving her practice as about capturing the poignancy or potential of a moment: “There are different moments that I’m interested in. But I think it is such an amazing moment when people realize what they are and what they can be, and they start putting themselves out into the world. I think you can see it in people when it’s happening. They look different” (Elizabeth Peyton in conversation with Jarvis Cocker in: Interview Magazine, 26 November 2008, online). Heathrow (Keith), Dec. 1969 duly shows Richards at a heightened and paradoxical moment public scrutiny and introspection, looking away as he is looked upon, and resisting scrutiny even as he is photographed and pursued.
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