Los Angeles

Elizabeth Peyton

When I was a little boy, the first time I saw David Bowie on television, I had no clue who he was, but I was captivated by his aura. It wasn’t specific to his celebrity status or reputation as a gender bender. I could see right there, in his figure, a conception of masculinity very different from the one I had been exposed to. I had a similar experience when I watched Mick Jagger for the first time, and later when I read Oscar Wilde. As I came to know more about these figures, however, their power to convey complex notions of masculinity became stymied by their publicly prescribed roles. With my unsung heroes, the guys I came across who seemed interesting simply because they were masculine in their own ways, the aura never faded, because the persona never stole the stage.

It is for this reason that I wish I didn’t recognize any of the faces in Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits, and that I was happy not to recognize a few in her latest offering of seven paintings, all from 1999. Other people can debate Peyton’s painterliness. I’ll agree her style can be a bit fashion-schoolish at times, but in general her handling is lovely and at times even impressive in its shorthand way of evoking detail: A few strokes of brown effortlessly convey the mop of hair in Tony reading (Silver Tony), and some patches of color become the quilt on which the figure reclines in Daniel in bed, June 99. In fact, in its sketchy, impressionistic manner, Peyton’s style seems quite appropriate to capturing the various ways her subjects go about being masculine.

Peyton indeed has a talent for noticing those moments in which men show themselves to be self-aware, complicated, contradictory, confusing, and confused constructions. Her knack is evident in an oil-on-linen like Princes William and Harry, September 99, which calls to mind an earlier image in ink Peyton made of John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) and John Beverley (aka Sid Vicious). In both works one is privy to a moment in which one male examines another—a fascinating and telling scene, and one rarely focused on—but in each instance, the personas of the individuals get in the way. The works become pictures of people one realizes one knows some things about rather than images of figures one wants to understand.

I’ll pass on the princes as well as on John F. Kennedy, Jr., who made his way into two images in this exhibition. It’s Rob and Tony and Daniel who interest me. Perhaps these guys are tomorrow’s toasts of the town, and I just don’t have my ear glued well enough to the ground to know it. When it comes to getting something from Peyton’s work, though, my lack of hipness might serve me, and the artist, well. The genuine interest of her paintings of unknowns shows the persona power of her celebrity subjects to be a crutch she doesn’t need.

Christopher Miles