New York

Elizabeth Peyton

Gavin Brown's Enterprise | Downtown

If her charmingly antiquated paintings are any indication, Elizabeth Peyton harbors a major crush on the late, great Kurt Cobain. Peyton’s neo-Romantic works resonate with the kind of libidinal melancholia—or posthumous-sub-pop-hero-worship—commonly associated with fawning teenagers enamored of their idol’s sexy, nihilistic tendencies. Here, we are discreetly reminded that, pushing tendency into reality, Cobain blew his brains out in his Seattle home last spring.

While still alive, Kurt might have dwelled somewhat uncomfortably in the heart-shaped box of Courtney’s love, but he ended up in an a container with somewhat different dimensions. Through the agency of Peyton’s apparently heartfelt reminiscing, Kurt undergoes a symbolic resurrection: her oil-on-Masonite paintings of Cobain, based on photos found in magazines and images culled from videos, read like love letters cloyingly penned to that shabbily dressed, beatific nihilist who actively resisted being pigeonholed as a spokesperson for Gen-X.

Kurt With Cheeky Num-Num, 1995, features a straggly-haired, Christ-like Cobain being frisky with his calico cat, while three pictures simply entitled Kurt (all from 1995) depict the crackly-voiced crooner in a variety of his characteristically hunched-over stances. In one of these pictures, Peyton seems to subtly make Cobain over in her own image, a gesture that not only suggests self-conscious identity play but also reminds us that her pop-idol infatuation should not rate as merely pathological. Although the artist spends most of her time dwelling longingly on the crudely feminine qualities of Cobain’s fallen-angel visage, she also makes room for another penchant: two works are devoted to the celluloid-memory of Antoine Doinelle, the handsome young protagonist of a number of François Truffaut’s early films.

Cobain’s suicide launched a million sighs, immediately placing him in the upper echelon of rock-’n’-roll deities. While his gaunt frame may have entered a terrestrial nirvana, his spirit has proven to be indomitable, as the heavy rotation of “Nirvana Unplugged” on MTV attests. Yet by elevating her pet cultural icon to a more private iconographic status, Peyton attempts to momentarily displace or suspend the kind of vicarious intimacy created by the mass media with the more “bona fide” intimacy promised by traditional modes of portraiture. This is all articulated in a style that is cautiously informal (practiced yet offhand), allowing the artist to handle her primary subject with a kind of graceful awkwardness.

For all their hip subject matter, these works seem to have arrived from another time and place. It’s as if a minor 19th-century painter were inhabiting our rather than his own fin de siècle, taking our cultural vernacular and giving it an old-fashioned decadence in these dainty portraits of the young musician as sensitive artist—of the pensive fop inside the depressive Cobain. Maybe Peyton’s admittedly winsome appeal for the restoration of a sentimental realism in painting is another way of speaking about our inexorable demand for cults of personality, which essentially erode what they are meant to preserve. Peyton recasts this demand as her own desire to become a charter member of the Kurt Cobain fan club, offering these “memento mori” as tokens of solidarity with what might lie behind the singer’s mythology or mystique. In the end, however, she may find nothing there but the “truth” of her own nostalgic desire.

Joshua Decter