Elizabeth Peyton

Deichtorhallen Hamburg

Elizabeth Peyton is a small woman who works for the most part on a small scale, but she is a majestic painter, perhaps the most important of her generation. The extremely traditional installation of this, her largest museum show to date, was correct and coherent because her work arouses in the viewer a devotion to painting, a passion for the old-fashioned pleasure of looking. In his catalogue essay Ronald Jones maintains that Peyton communicates to others what she has been able to recover for herself—a love of images and a faith in their veracity. Her paintings are always based on photographs, but she transforms everything in them into pictorial signs, and each sign bears an emotional intensity. Peyton doesn't differentiate between the photos she finds in magazines and those she shoots of her friends; these public and private image-worlds are both integral parts of her existence. The characters Peyton paints are objects of love, whether rock stars, English royals, great writers from the past, or her friends and lovers. Her brushstrokes are always brief, concise, and efficacious—apt for conveying the details of an interior, for example the flowers on the small table in Torosay (Tony), 2000, defined with small red blotches. The character's expression is equally precise, his state of mind hinted at perhaps by the position of the body, by a revealing gesture, as in Liam (Football), 1996, one of the rare large-scale pieces.

But what conveys context, objects, and details in a photograph becomes more abstract, though no less realistic, in a painting. Peyton's earliest works, particularly her drawings, portraits of historical personalities such as Ludwig of Bavaria and Napoleon, suffered from an academicism that masked uncertainty. In her most recent works the uncertainty has vanished, replaced by an almost virtuosic skill that sets the original photographic image back in the world and imbues it with emotional energy, combining expressive power or grace. It's almost as though one could follow the painter" hand as she conjures, for instance, the dress in Chloe, 2000, dark pink with complicated lilac decorations, and the reddish reflection on the subject's angular face; or the undulating lines in the shirt of Spencer, 2000, or those in the hair of Silver Tony, 1999—true proofs of Peyton's ability, which we witness with uncommon pleasure. Apart from her indubitable bravura, however, Peyton's energy resides largely in her chromatic choices. Her luminous colors seem almost to transcend the contingency of the subject and transform it into an icon, an image literally overheated by the passion with which the artist invests it.

Thus the luminous background of the splendid Zoe's Kurt, 1995, the red hair of Jake Chapman, 1995, the various reds and also the dark green of the bottles in Sharon (Berlin), 1996, and naturally the blue eyes of Tony or of the boy in Democrats Are More Beautiful, 2001, draw the viewer like magnets. Reproduced in the catalogue, they become photographs once again, and the images lose their luminosity. Peyton's works have their origin in photography, but if they are not seen firsthand, they lose much of their meaning. By way of mediation, the artist in the end reconfirms the necessity of direct experience, whose demise we have so often found ourselves lamenting.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.