Walker Art Center

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Painting the Essence of an Era

By Laura Hoptman

One of the extraordinary things about Elizabeth Peyton’s oeuvre is that it can serve as a chronicle of a particular period—at a certain moment in the history of culture in certain places among a few people who were enthusiastically making it. Sometimes they knew each other; sometimes they were just mutual fans. In retrospect, her paintings have become a kind of essence of a fifteen-year period in popular culture, something like a complicated perfume that retains the sensory grace notes of a hundred different exquisite elements, but on its own is distinct.

If that period in a certain slice of culture in the United States, as well as in cities like London and Berlin, is gone on the streets and in the galleries, it remains forever fresh in her paintings. Despite their myriad references to art history, they have never coaxed us into nostalgia, and even now, looking at a 1995 portrait of Kurt Cobain, we can feel a mix of rue, admiration, and sentiment, not as a memory, but again as if the picture were painted yesterday. This feeling is similar to listening to a great song recorded decades ago; it still does what it set out to do, even if it is so familiar as to be emblematic.

Peyton’s paintings were seen by a relatively small but influential audience in 1995, the year of her first substantial exhibition in a commercial gallery in New York; since that time, her paintings, drawings, watercolors, and prints have been exhibited annually in either New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, or other major capitals across Europe, the U.S., and Asia. The regularity of her exhibition record has allowed interested viewers to follow her work closely and comprehensively. What is revealed when the work is seen in toto is an astonishing consistency of technique, of subject, and of purpose. From her first exhibition, this artist seems to have emerged in full possession of her faculties, with a project to capture in portraiture individuals in whom she discerns a magical quality—an indescribable mixture of romanticism, beauty, grace, creativity, innocence, sexuality, “zazz.” She found her preferred medium early—oil on board mounted on a frame of about a quarter of an inch thick—and she has rarely deviated from these materials, or from her paintings’ small size (most are around eleven by fourteen inches). From the beginning, her source materials were photographs that she found or snapped herself, as well as film, video, and stills. By the mid-1990s she began to sketch from life, but the difference it made in the look of her paintings is subtle, almost negligible; all the work retains a mixture of intimacy and stylization whether it was painted from photographs or from life.

In the very contemporary art world, fifteen years is a long time to be at the center of a discourse. Peyton was not the only figurative painter to attract attention and controversy during this time, but her work arguably attracted more attention and more controversy than most others, at least during the first ten years of her career. It did this because it was and is the most radical example of a particular kind of popular realism that emerged in the 1990s and reached its apex during the first few years of the new millennium. Her paintings are also the most appealing, a characteristic that made them all the more problematic, emerging as they did in a period when many critics and institutions were suspicious enough of visual pleasure to have written it out of the aesthetic conversation.

Looking back, there is no doubt that the creation and reception of Peyton’s paintings in the 1990s utterly changed the contemporary art landscape in New York, and perhaps in London and Berlin as well. Now, in 2009, the profound revolution in thinking about and in seeing contemporary art that was sparked by the advent of Peyton’s paintings has come to pass. So-called “reactionary” style has been reborn as radical; painting is no longer an automatically ironic gesture; and most importantly, popular cultural forms and subjects ranging from comics to pinups to illustrations have taken their rightful place in the contemporary art discourse. They have done so not as source material, not masked, subsumed, or transformed by high-art practices (see Pablo Picasso or Roy Lichtenstein) but as they are.

Peyton’s work, then, introduced a new chapter in contemporary art, but it also introduced a new audience. We swooned, collectively, and, as the critic Lisa Liebmann pointed out at the time, in an arid, suspicious contemporary art atmosphere it was a release we sorely needed. There is no doubt that things are completely different now, with so many ideological and economic changes occurring inside the art world and, more profoundly, in this country and the world at large. It is a source of wonder and of joy that looking at Elizabeth Peyton’s work now does not make us nostalgic for the time that created them, but affects us in a way that can still make us lose our breath and perhaps lose ourselves, propelling us into a deathless, but utterly pleasurable, state.

—Laura Hoptman, exhibition curator, New Museum, New York
Excerpt from the essay ”Fin de Siècle“ in the catalogue Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton

Elizabeth Peyton, Live to Ride (E.P.), 2003

Oil on board
15 x 12 in.
Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Partial and promised gift of David Teiger in honor of Chrissie Iles
[Elizabeth Peyton self-portrait]