New York

Guy Peellaert

Greene Naftali Garage

Life isn’t just lonely at the top in Guy Peellaert’s paintings of Las Vegas superstars—it’s the ultimate downer. In this series of 48 paintings by the Belgian artist, the comics, mobsters, sports stars, singers, politicians, and merely famous who play the “big rooms” of the Strip’s entertainment showplaces are all portrayed alone (even when in a crowd), their performers’ extrovertedness on hold, their energy low, their narcissistic gaze turned in on nothingness. Melancholy Monarch, 1984, the title of a portrait of Nat King Cole, could stand as a generic title for this one-note series of memento mori; the emotions so bluntly conjured—vulnerability, anomie, terror—are laid on so heavily that they might as well be underpainted in neon beneath the painting’s dark surfaces. Like its subjects, stuck in the Big Room of the soul until their inevitable fall, these pictures have nowhere to go once they’ve taken their best shot.

Unlike the hard, shiny, surrealistic photorealism of his portraits of rock stars in the book Rock Dreams (1973), Peellaert adopts a style of Hopperish sobriety appropriate to his Hopperish theme of solitude. In the “Big Room” series (1976–86) this translates into dulled colors and blurry, generalized details, into deep shadows in empty spaces—stylistic flourishes that lend their metaphorical weight to the air of despair by underlining the spiritual emptiness embodied in the solitary figures. But there’s little in sight of the Hopper light; these portraits are lit by an even, dim illumination (get the metaphorical import?), as if a 60-watt bulb were used where a 100-watt bulb was needed. And there’s only a reduced version of Hopper’s already simplified compositional method. Peellaert’s hotel rooms, elevators, restaurants, and railroad-car compartments are cursorily indicated, as if he were impatient to get to the real subject at hand: the celeb in the spotlight.

Perhaps the real problem is that his limited theme is too limited, the monodimensional style too uniform, too thin (particularly in a large series), a metaphorical overkill that crowds the portentous toward the pretentious. The weakest paintings are Peellaertian conventions about popular clichés that produce no psychological or symbolic insight: Liberace in a limo brooding on a poodle, Jayne Mansfield checking out her mammoth mammaries in a hot-pink gown, Johnny Carson on a guest-room TV set, Ann-Margaret trying on a bra. There’s no revelation offered because there’s really nothing to know about these particular subjects. Others look even more as though Peellaert were only going through the motions: Nixon (in Las Vegas?) seems like a gratuitous inclusion (though perhaps not coincidentally, he looks like a dead ringer for Peellaert’s portrait of Jimmy Hoffa). In these and other like paintings, Peellaert’s strained reach for high art degenerates into a less focused version of ’40s-style Arrow shirt illustrations.

Like a stubborn comedian, though, Peellaert hangs in there, and occasionally hits the mark, especially when his subjects cop an attitude—any attitude—that cuts through their pervasive existential angst to limn a particularized psychological profile in the generalized existential landscape. Nick the Greek exudes the adrenalin addiction of the professional gambler, Bugsy Siegel presents an almost bemused arrogance, a reptilian George Raft epitomizes unrepentance. Even better are the portraits of Marilyn Monroe—nude, in bed, with a face already halfway to orgasm as she connects with the viewer—and an almost hidden John F. Kennedy, moving in on a woman behind a phalanx of heavy-faced “players.” Both of these paintings have some light in them, literally from lamp sources and metaphorically from the actions that animate the otherwise static scenes.

These overdetermined paintings look like only parts of the story, and the rest is provided by Michael Herr’s complementary text in the book The Big Room (1986). Herr’s post-Dispatches prose has lost none of its neoapocalyptic pop when it’s on target; Frank Sinatra and Meyer Lansky in particular draw some real heat from its pyrotechnic repertory. On other, potentially rich subjects, Herr is cursory (Joe DiMaggio), prosaic (Joe Louis), arch (Howard Cosell), and even mute (Elvis Presley), as if, like Peellaert, he had gambled and lost, hitting a blank wall of unknowable celebrityhood. When Peellaert is inspired, as in the portrait of Bobby Darin, with his pumped-up cockiness and the fear behind his face built into an overall composition (a defiant pose struck on a rainy New York City street), Herr also rises to the moment, producing a minibiography of haunting insight. Even in the relentless world of fame, some stories are just better than others.

John Howell