Not portraits, "pictures of people": Elizabeth Peyton at the Walker

Elizabeth Peyton doesn’t paint portraits, according to Walker Art Center curator Elizabeth Carpenter. Peyton paints “pictures of people,” Carpenter said at a curator-led preview of Peyton’s retrospective exhibit now on display at the Walker.

The exhibit, on display through June 14, features roughly 100 pieces, primarily paintings, with some drawings on paper. Featured are paintings of celebrities such as Kurt Cobain and Liam Gallagher, historical figures such as Napoleon and Ludwig II of Bavaria, and Peyton's friends, lovers, and fellow artists.

live forever: elizabeth peyton, an exhibit on display through june 14 at the walker art center, 1750 hennepin ave., minneapolis. admission $10. for information, see walkerart.org.
The exhibit premiered at the New Museum in New York and was originally assembled by Laura Hoptman, Peyton’s close friend. Elizabeth Carpenter, the curator who was also instrumental in bringing the smash hit Frida exhibit to the Walker last year, collaborated with Hoptman in bringing the show to the Walker.

Carpenter said that although Peyton chooses cultural icons as the subject of much of her work, she is not an artist in love with celebrity. “I’m going to contradict that immediately,” Carpenter continued. “It’s not so much an infatuation with people who are famous, as the fact that she’s a romantic…she’s in love with history, with culture.” Carpenter said that in fact, Peyton fights against celebrity in her work. Instead of striving for a likeness, Carpenter said Peyton brings forward the internal greatness of her subjects.

Indeed, the most successful of Peyton’s celebrity portraits seem to be portraits of Peyton rather than her subjects. All of the men in the exhibit seem to have ruby red lips, soft, feminine hair, and long eyelashes. Whether it be Kurt Cobain, or David Hockney, or her boyfriend, one wonders whether Peyton made these men feminine because she saw herself in them.

There’s a small room dedicated to portraits of Kurt Cobain, who appears as an extremely feminine, reflective soul searcher. “The images of Kurt are gender-bending,” Carpenter said. “Peyton is interested in men who have a feminine aspect and can objectify themselves.” Princess Kurt was based on an image from a video of a concert Nirvana performed in Brazil. Cobain came on stage wearing a tiara, and that image was the basis for Peyton’s painting. Cobain’s crown is pushed down over his eyes, as he mocks the crowd’s reaction. He also wears a dress, and in Peyton’s interpretation, he almost seems to have breasts. It is as if Peyton is living in that moment, as Cobain blows a raspberry at the world.

In another Kurt Cobain painting, Kurt Sleeping, Peyton imagines what Cobain might have been like as a young teenager, fallen asleep after reading Cream Magazine. The painting has empathy for Cobain, but also suggests that Peyton herself longs for a simpler time in her own life.

Carpenter suggested that Peyton’s work turns the history of the male gaze in art around. For example, the exhibit features several images of Tony Just, Peyton’s boyfriend of three years. Carpenter said that Peyton was aware of the tradition of artists such as Matisse painting portraits of sleeping prostitutes, and said that Peyton transcended that tradition by using men who objectify themselves already.

Toward the end of the exhibit, her work starts to get more realistic, more detailed. More of the work is taken from real life, rather than photographs, and it becomes less interesting. Rather than painting herself as Napoleon, herself as Liam Gallagher, herself as Princess Elizabeth, Peyton begins to simply paint others as they are. Yes, these works are richer in detail, but they don’t open a window to Peyton’s feelings and mind as the earlier works do. One painting, based on the famous image of Sasha Obama lying in Michelle Obama’s lap, looks strikingly similar to the original photograph, but doesn’t offer anything more.

Born in 1965, Peyton is clearly young to have a retrospective exhibit, and there are sure to be new directions in her artistic future. Hopefully she will find a way to marry the freshness, intensity, and rawness of her earlier work with the more sophisticated techniques she has acquired in recent years.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.

Top: Elizabeth Peyton, Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008, 2008. Oil on board 14-1/4 x 11-1/4 in. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York. Bottom: Elizabeth Peyton, Princess Kurt, 1995. Oil on linen 14 x 11-3/4 in. Collection Walker Art Center T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1995.

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.