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Blithe Spirit:
A conversation with Elizabeth Peyton and Cheryl Kaplan

Along with David Hockney, she was the unchallenged star at this year’s Whitney Biennial: the American painter Elizabeth Peyton, born in 1965 and represented by the Deutsche Bank Collection, finds the material for her works both in the widespread ”public” images she borrows from books, magazines, record covers, or music video stills and in the ”private” photographs she takes herself. Sid Vicious, Prince Harry, Jarvis Cocker, and Leonardo Di Caprio: historical figures and living persons appear in Peyton’s work as fragile, androgynous beings with light eyes and scarlet-red lips. Cheryl Kaplan met with the artist in New York for an exclusive interview.

Elisabeth Peyton at Whitney Biennale, New York
Photo: © 2004 Cheryl Kaplan all rights reserved

Elizabeth Peyton is wearing a turquoise ski cap pulled down to just above her eyebrows as she climbs the narrow stairs to the upper room at Gavin Brown’s enterprise. She could almost be Prince Harry in her 1997 painting titled Arsenal, but she’s happier. Peyton is slight and incredibly agile, a skill that defines both the way she thinks and the way she moves. In a matter of seconds, she’s been across the world and back, judging by the lightening changes in her facial expressions. But just before she speaks, everything is momentarily cooled down. She has the poise of a character from a picaresque novel, ready to take a gander and not afraid of all that. Or a kind of reverse Estella, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, who, instead of being taught by the jilted Miss Havisham to hate men or people in general, actually loves them and doesn’t see the harm so plentiful in the world.

Elizabeth Peyton: Live to Ride (E.P.), 2003
Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York
©Elisabeth Peyton

Peyton’s portraits depend on romantic love and the gentle anxiety that is never far behind. Her portraits are acts of homage and delight, even when misery is introduced, as it is in the portrait of Kurt Cobain, where trouble spreads across the surface of the painting. Throughout her work, delight and sorrow are sifted to purposefully avoid irony. Take one look at the just about life-size full page ad for the Whitney Biennial that features Peyton’s painting, Live to Ride, (E.P.) and you’ll get a sense of just how straight-on she is.

In painting celebrities and friends, Peyton has cast a series of heroes who appear in almost episodic fashion. They are adventurers who share a rare trait called humility that was either taught or tamed back into them. In Dark Conceit - The Making of Allegory, Edwin Honig wrote: “The hero is a gentleman of superior judgment and skill… a companion to those who share in his enterprises.” Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings cut through popular culture to deliver a shared common experience.

Cheryl Kaplan: What surprised you the most about the way your paintings were installed at the Whitney Biennial? Your paintings were wedged between David Hockney and Jack Pierson .

Elizabeth Peyton: I knew I was going to be with David Hockney. I didn’t know about Jack Pierson until close to the hanging. You can look at Jack’s pictures of really beautiful men and think David Hockney was going to do that and that’s probably what my work would be about; it was really nice to see it wasn’t. The installation was kind of sneaky. It seemed obvious, but when you see the work in the flesh, it isn’t. There was that complexity.

Work by Jack Pierson Elisabeth Peyton: David Hockney
Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise,
New York ©Elisabeth Peyton

CK: I liked that spin. Do you think because you’re doing portraits it also invites comparison to classical painters from Ingres to Sargent even though you're stylistically compared to Hockney?

EP: It’s surprising it doesn’t come up more often. I think about it a lot. When I was younger and because I’m a woman, the work wasn’t even looked at as portraiture. People looked at it as teenage lust and longing, or obsessive. People have painted people they’ve loved throughout history, it’s not new and not specific to women or young people. Many mature men have been besotted with great leaders and painted them. I’ve always pushed the Hockney thing. For the longest time, people didn’t bring it up, and then I started drawing him, making it a point that I really love him. I’m very influenced by him.

Elisabeth Peyton in front of David Hockney´s work, Whitney Biennale, New York
Installation view Whitney Biennale New York: Works by David Hockney, Photos: © 2004 Cheryl Kaplan all rights reserved

CK: Do you know Hockney well?

EP: No, I’ve never met him.

CK: It would be lovely to see the two of you together. Your use of the portrait is marveled at and also questioned because portraiture is an antique form less common in contemporary art, though film uses the portrait all the time. How do you deal with this discrepancy between painting and film?

EP: People looking at people is always a contemporary idea. Warhol was the hugest portraitist of all time. I don’t ever feel portraiture’s antiquated. Since I was little, I always wanted to make pictures of people. It was a way I knew, I wasn’t together enough to understand film.

Elizabeth Peyton,Meg with a broken arm (Meg White),2003
Courtesy Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York ©Elisabeth Peyton

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