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Avoiding the Obvious

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Elizabeth Peyton evades questions about painting famously pale, white men

Elizabeth Peyton informed the crowd at her lecture that she hoped to benefit from discussing her work. “It’s another way of thinking about my work without making work,” she claimed. Some artists’ nervous ramblings are at odds with work that is incredibly articulate. Others reveal a wealth of ideas that surprise even their biggest skeptics. In the case of Peyton, the artist and her work came together rather perfectly to create a whole: a sweet, pretty, but ultimately vacant whole.

Peyton zoomed through her slides of famous people past and present, friends and celebrities, most of them rendered luminously pale, slender, red-lipped, and pointy-nosed. There was Marc Jacobs, Napoleon, Kurt Cobain, Liam Gallagher, and Meg from the White Stripes. She said little about the people, but she did mention that Cobain was the first contemporary figure she looked up to. Also expressed was the recognition of a sense of modern nobility in her rock-star heroes.

Peyton repeatedly insisted that she is interested in the humanity and not the celebrity of her subjects. She claims to be fascinated primarily by the idea of capturing a fleeting moment in someone’s existence; what drew her to her subjects was their individuality. This prompted one particularly confident member of the audience to shout out, “Are you kidding me? They all look alike!” “This is not a test,” Peyton defensively responded, “I’m not trying to prove anything.” But as aggressively as the question came across, it could have been an opportunity to expand on a potential point of interest in her work. It was surprising that she could deny the likeness of her portraits, a tendency crucial to her body of work. Her pictures, after all, work less as individually-captured moments and more as elaborations on an idealized prototype. The audience remained curious as to whether she saw this as meaningful. Her purported naiveté in the face of this challenge was not believable, and her skill as a painter eliminates the possibility that this was a result of poor observation.

“A lot of them really are pale,” was Peyton’s obvious response when prompted by another question about the paling of the skin and reddening of lips in her pictures. In an interview from a May 2000 issue of Index magazine, she stated that beauty was a major no-no in the 1980s, the period in which she developed as an artist. The article suggested that Peyton’s work re-stages beauty and brings it forward from the shadows. “It’s almost a nineteenth-century idea that what’s on the inside appears on the outside,” she described. “Balzac was into the curve of your nose or mouth expressing some kind of inner quality, that it could be read on your face.” Her response to the question, “What is the difference between real beauty and physical beauty?” during the lecture, however, was not as clear. Her nervous reaction was far from revelatory, when, after an attempt to give a coherent answer, she gave up, asking, “What were the two things?”

Peyton has been praised for her approach to issues of representation, photographic imagery, celebrity, media, and a sense of the sacred in pop-idol worship. Yet the questions surrounding these issues were continuously answered with a simple, “I love the people I paint.” At an institution where intentions and process are continuously stressed, her responses and overall presentation seemed largely insufficient.

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