To paint well, I need to be enraptured by my subjects.
An intimate depiction of a young couple poised at the liminal threshold of a kiss, May 1999 (Kirsty + Roe Kissing West 15th Street) is a superlative example of Elizabeth Peyton’s body of portraits – one that invokes the classic art historical and cultural trope of the kiss. Detaching her subjects from their surroundings, Peyton zooms into her protagonists and condenses emotion within the picture plane, compelling the viewer to gaze closely at a charged moment forever frozen in time. In this dream-like instant, which is simultaneously momentous and mundane, Peyton embarks on a redefinition of the tradition of portraiture. While known for her immortalization of historical or iconic figures ranging from Napolean to Nicole Kidman, Peyton is equally celebrated for her focus on her acquaintances and friends. Here, Kirsty and Roe join her pantheon of subjects that evoke a Warholian sense of populist equality; she delineates Queen Elizabeth II with the same casual brushstrokes as Kurt Cobain, offering equal weight to Johnny Rotten as to John Lennon. Painting without hegemony, there is a democratisation at play that rescues portraiture from its elitist past. The artist explains: “There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally. The way I perceive them is very similar, in that there’s no difference between certain qualities that I find inspiring in them” (the artist cited in Rizzoli, Ed., Elizabeth Peyton, New York 2005, p. 16).
Emerging on the art scene in the early 1990s, Peyton has made a name for herself as the chronicler of the contemporary zeitgeist. Her portrayals of artists and musicians appropriate images from popular magazines, imparting a sense of romance and mysticism onto the ubiquitous images of grungy rock stars. While espousing a naiveté reminiscent of the scribbles of an infatuated schoolgirl, Peyton’s portraits convey a beguiling charisma – one achieved via the juxtaposition of her intimately cropped compositions and the detached dispassion of her subjects. Predominantly small in scale, Peyton’s portraits recall medieval Russian icons and Pre-Raphaelite romanticism. 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. In the process, she reanimates nineteenth-century traditions of portraiture whilst also finding beauty in mundane humanity. Through a transforming and universalising hand, Peyton’s subjects are made more luminous and more beautiful, but at the same time more dispassionate than they could ever be in reality – approaching the timeless aura of the heroes and saints of antiquity.
The disengaged distance in Peyton’s subjects is epitomized by her frequent portrayal of androgynous boys, whose laid-back indifference form a cultural zeitgeist of their own. Here in the present work, the androgynous Roe is a superlative example – he is idealized via pale skin and red lips, which shuns the archaic gender system of machoism and draws out his vulnerable tender beauty. Jerry Saltz has remarked: “She painted [androgynous boys] with a fluid, sexy touch that negated issues of illustration or kitsch, and helped melt the ice that had formed around painting in the early 1990s. Somehow, Peyton was entirely in her moment and her own mind at the same time”. When examining the structure of the composition, we find Roe in a state of sublime liminality: where we do not know if he is leaning forward or holding back. As Iwona Blazwick observes: “[Peyton’s figures] are all on the diagonal […] these figures – their youth, their beauty, and the moment of time they inhabit – are about to fall. This sense of something fleeting and vulnerable is intensified by the delicacy of Peyton’s drawing” (Iwona Blazwick, “Excessive Life”, in Exh. Cat., New York, New Museum, Elizabeth Peyton: Live Forever, 2008, p. 232). Peyton’s attention to emotional detail and use of colour have led critics to situate her in the long illustrious line of figurative artists such as Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent. Selecting her subjects carefully, Peyton only chooses people that captivate her in some way. In the artist’s own words: “To paint well, I need to be enraptured by my subjects” (Elizabeth Peyton in an interview with Andrew Purcell ahead of her retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in 2009, online).
By invoking the universally shared repertoire of the trope of the kiss, the present painting is a superlative work imbued with a familiarity and intimacy that viewers can take part in. We do not know nor recognise Kirsty and Roe; however, we feel as though we do, as though their wholly private moment shares a joint lineage with our own nostalgic personal histories – as though we are looking back at our own personal photo album. Blurring the lines between lived experience, memory, and imagination, the present work manifests Peyton’s ongoing fascination with the capacity of a single image to hold in tension various layers of representation, each fraught with their own inaccuracies and sources of bias. Adopting a modus operandi reminiscent of Egon Schiele, who likewise used his contemporaries (friends, lovers, critics, and artists) as subjects, at the psychological crux of Peyton’s oeuvre is the juxtaposition between anonymity and familiarity, individuality and universality. Attesting to Peyton’s unique position within the contemporary art world, her portraits are housed in the collections of many leading museums, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Elizabeth Peyton is also going to be the subject of an upcoming exhibition that opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London.