In a style akin to Douglas Blau and Richard Prince, Peyton reinterprets an image by photojournalist Allan Tannenbaum and reshapes Vicious in stillness and silence, as he appears enraptured by deep reflective melancholia. Detached from the frenzy and pandemonium, Peyton intimately zooms into Vicious, such that the viewer is compelled to gaze closely at the protagonist. Silencing the paparazzi behind a morose blue backdrop, the viewer only catches a subtle glimpse of the flash bulbs, and a blurred image of Vicious’ captor. In this solitary, almost dream-like moment, all logical elements of the situation are suspended and beauty trumps disenchantment.
By distorting the original photograph, Peyton comments on the superficiality of the photographic image and its ability to distort and exaggerate moments. By diminishing the traditional distance of portraiture, she not only venerates her subjects as saints and icons, but also imbues them with a familiarity that resonates with romantic devotion: one that takes into account both their glories and faults. In the process, she reanimates nineteenth-century traditions of portraiture, which glorified high art, whilst also finding beauty in unifying the subject with expressions of humanity. Peyton explains: “It's almost a nineteenth-century idea that what's on the inside appears on the outside. Balzac was into the curve of your nose or mouth expressing some kind of inner quality that it could be read on your face” (Elizabeth Peyton quoted in: ‘Elizabeth Peyton’, The Index Magazine, 2000, online).
Peyton thus pursues beauty not only through painting distant historical figures like Napoleon, but also by portraying far-from-perfect contemporaries, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious. She awakens the vulnerability of her subjects, bringing them to life by dramatising their expressions. In this case, Peyton stages the very moment of Vicious’ arrest, emphasising the dark circles under his eyes, as he is further humanised by Peyton’s addition of a teardrop.
Vicious‘ features are idealised: his skin, pale; his lips, red; he is bestowed with androgynous qualities, which in spite of his angst-ridden visage, bestow a sense of youth and innocence. In the process, she casts a feminine gaze over her icon, trumping the archaic system that forces men to appear macho and unfeeling; in a Caravaggio-esque manner Peyton portrays Vicious as a virginal male. As punk and Sex Pistols historian, Jon Savage, adds, “It's all right for disco divas to take off the slap when they get home, but rock stars have to be who they are, offstage and on. This absurd state of affairs crucifies lives and stunts individual and collective growth. Peyton is careful to emphasise male tenderness” (Jon Savage, ‘Boys keep swinging, Elizabeth Peyton’, Frieze, November-December 1996, online).
Rather than diminishing Vicious’ rock star image, Peyton balances illusion with reality, to awaken the inner and hidden qualities of her protagonist. Large-in-scale in comparison to many of the artist’s portraits, Sid Vicious Arrested is a seminal work that democratises portraiture by borrowing from a public photograph and subsequently reimagines it as fiction.
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