I wish I could be the fourteen year old version of myself a hundred years from now, walk into a museum, and discover Elizabeth Peyton's paintings; I would love to see them with uncynical eyes far enough in the future that the slightly disreputable poppiness will have evaporated.
I saw the midcareer retrospective currently mounted at The New Museum and just loved it. I don't pay much attention to contemporary art these days, and I had forgotten all about her. I saw the Kurt Cobain exhibition in the mid-nineties and I liked it, but I remember being really snotty about it. Oh, she paints from photographs. She paints rock stars. I was wrong. I mean, yes, Elizabeth Peyton does paint from photographs and she does, indeed, paint lots of rock stars, but after seeing the exhibition yesterday, I'm not the least bit snotty. I think she might be the real deal.
Writing about painting isn't much better than dancing about architecture, so still the best thing I can say is to go see it. She paints mostly people: rock stars, people from history, friends and lovers. She also has one extraordinary street scene, Seventh Avenue looking uptown to St. Vincent's Hospital. Her colors are beautiful, the pictures are really lovely and compelling.
I went to art school for a time about twenty years ago, and I really liked painting people. It never even occurred to me that I could major in fine art, as fine art at that point wasn't at all about painting pictures of people. People who painted representationally became illustrators. In an interview, Peyton articulated something very well: "If it [art] can be understood, it [is thought to be] somehow dumb." I think she's right, and it's something that has pervaded theater, too.
I think she's a brave artist. She paints pictures of people. There's nothing not to get. If you don't like one of her paintings, you don't like her work. If your work is more conceptual, I think you have more barriers between yourself and what people think of you. People might not understand your work, they might not have the context to appreciate it, they might be a little stupid. I'm not saying I don't like, or find abstract or conceptual art interesting or worthwhile, I just think there is room for both. And I've always found people to be more interesting than ideas.
There is a kind of aching romanticism in Peyton's work that I haven't felt before in contemporary art. I'm jealous in a way, as I think this is the sort of work I would like to be doing if I still painted. Seeing this exhibition of portraits of pop stars, and film stills, and artists and people she loves made me want to paint again. I like pictures of people. I think lots of people do. That doesn't make it a bad thing.