Los Angeles

Elizabeth Peyton

The languorous poses, the specific clothes and hairdos, the rooms, vague surroundings, and landscapes (sometimes imagined) they appear in, the friends they conspire with—there are no meaningless details concerning the lives of the rockers Elizabeth Peyton’s art chronicles, although it would be difficult to articulate what the meaning is (her project is an attempt again and again at such articulation). They’re not just any rockers: lanky and sinuous, their sex appeal comes in part from the more-than-likely unconscious or drug-enhanced blurring of the edges of their ill-fitting masculinity, slipped on as if a garment they have yet to grow into. The sounds they make are sometimes tuneful; at other times they thrash aggressively against anything their bodies fail to make certain. They often look so tired and angelically strung-out because their bodies fail to make certain a lot of things.

Watercolor is a fitting medium for these young men. It flows and disperses, suggests too much emotion rather than too little. In Beck, 1996, the adorable loser sports country duds—a shirt with applique and fringe—in various shades of blue that have some trouble staying in the lines. Oasis’ Liam Gallagher’s juicy red lips look as if they have been kissed too many times or sung things too intensely, all smudged and indistinct—not lipstick really but the lips themselves—as he leans in to talk with the Beatles manager George Martin in Liam and George Martin (at the Q awards Nov. 96), 1996. Even Peyton’s palette takes its cue from constantly shifting things—sunsets (purples, pinks, reds, unbelievable hues), Hollywood Technicolor, the look of MTV.

Much has been made, too much really, of Peyton’s work as an exploration of androgyny or, more precisely, masculinity’s femininity; almost nothing at all has been written about how she considers the similarities and differences between “type” and “person.” Or how it is not only these inward, skinny, boy wonders who pinpoint masculinity’s voids, which are just as apparent in their physical opposites (muscleboys) and are manifested in most men’s difficulty in expressing, outside of sports and violence, their weird, messed-up interiority, which they armor against the siege of daily life in various ways. (The current symbol of that armor is a set of ripped abs.) Peyton is a fan of specific musicians—in this outing, Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Beck, Evan Dando—but also enamored of a specific type of which these rockers represent the (public) apotheosis. Friends and acquaintances—the delicious Craig of AC2K; the hot Udomsak, an artist who shows at the same New York gallery with Peyton; the charmer Marcello, whom Peyton befriended while in São Paulo for the Biennale—are gushily depicted with no less care than the famous bandmembers she does not know, but also, quite interestingly, with no more. Peyton’s gaze is not cruel but matter-of-fact: all these guys are part of her visual field, and all are complex influences and attractions. I take the time to name and contextualize Peyton’s turnons because it is as important to know who they are and what they do as who they are not. Recently one (at best naive) critic never differentiated between the men—as if they were interchangeable or as if Peyton would be just as moonstruck by Michael Jackson, Skeet Ulrich, or Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha (all of whom inhabit the same somatype). Not caring about just who these young men are is sacrilege to fandom.

As suggestive and interesting as Peyton’s work is, at times it does come across as less than convincing. Whatever her strengths, she never allows herself the rich, fucked-up strangeness of Karen Kilimnik’s more complex, apposite work. There is also something a bit predictable about the almost stereotypical heterosexual grid she and her concerns fit into (“This is what ‘girls’ do: they dream of Prince Charming. They don’t become rock stars”). She expressed some of the same doubts in a recent interview: “I wonder if I was a man if I could get away with painting only nice women.” To put this another way: Would as many critics pay such rapt attention if she were a woman painting women, or a man painting these same musical men with such adoration? Doubts to which I can only respond, Well, uh, no.

Bruce Hainley