NEW MUSEUM | OCTOBER 8, 2008 – JANUARY 11, 2009
While Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings represent an undeniable achievement—coming to the fore during the recession of the early 1990s, staying on top over the course of several successive market bubbles, and now, at the onset of the current global crisis, tucked snuggly behind blue chip lines—there’s something about them that makes me question the importance of the show now on view at the New Museum. With their intimate scale and dandified charm, the paintings are tautly composed, sensuous, vibrant, economical in their means, light of touch—taken individually, they are deeply palatable. But seen en masse, I must admit that they leave a bad taste in my mouth. Although they came to public attention by skillfully and boldly reclaiming the tradition we most treasure in art—society portraiture—during what was mainly a boom time (when such a phenomenon is to be expected), today each painting, after its zesty explosion of fleshy luminosity, also ends up feeling trivial, undernourished and unsustaining.
In trying to understand the off-taste that the paintings leave in my mouth, I was reminded of Anton Ego, the condescending French food critic in the recent animated film, Ratatouille. Despite Ego’s ability to inspire sympathy late in the film (when he tastes the perfect ratatouille, cooked by the rat, Remy), I recognize the danger of associating myself with this unlikable cartoon critic. But it turns out that Ego and I have something in common in this particular case. His ability to judge food, we learn, is linked to his experience of his own mother’s cooking. When he tastes Remy’s ratatouille, he undergoes an out-of-body sensory experience, returning to the time and place when his standards were set—a place so authentic as to link all things perfect to the bliss of his mother’s home cooking. Peyton’s dish does much the same for me, but with an unfortunate aftertaste. Let me explain.
In 1968, while I was still curled up in my mother’s womb, I spent a lot of time going along for the ride while she worked on paintings in her upstairs studio, the strange brew of linseed oil and mineral spirits passing through the membrane of her uterus and mixing like a joyous intoxicant with whatever brand of cigarette this suburban Elaine deKooning was inhaling at the time. So my taste for the medium, the lubricant, started long before I could even see the world, or whatever representations of it hung on my mother’s studio wall.
At the time, my mother was not painting on canvas, but on a novel ground of her own devising. Her parents, my grandparents, were in the pre-fast-food industry, having opened one of the first greasy-spoon franchises in the Baltimore/Washington region, the White Coffee Pot Jr. A family friend who was a high-up administrator at the local Sweetheart paper cup factory had begun to supply my mother with gigantic rolls of extremely tough, smooth paper coated on one side with a dry, waxy substance. Think paper cup, pre-cup. Upon the uncoated side of this white ground, my mother would paint a motley cast of extremely local sitters, using a loose oil medium influenced by at least one of the art-alchemical heroes who has so obviously also influenced Peyton, namely Matisse.
As you might imagine, especially if you have ever handled a loaded paintbrush, that linseed-y concoction behaves differently on different surfaces. In my mother’s case, as in the work of Egon Schiele, it didn’t spread evenly; on the contrary, with every glide of the brush, the amount of pigment that slipped across the paper would vary, depending upon the saturation level of the brush and the extension of its ride. It might have sloshed a bit at first, even dripped, but ultimately my mother’s oil paint on that particular surface smeared—every emphatic hair of the brush showing its trace.
Of course, Peyton’s extremely impressive exhibition at the high-architecture “Cakebox-on-the-Bowery” has nothing to do with the nostalgia I feel for my mother’s formative paintings. However, the medium does. Because what I’m saying is that I understand how Peyton cooks, know her ingredients, have always loved this dish. I can taste it with my eyes closed. In my mother’s early paintings, and in Peyton’s, every mark is convincingly alive and convincingly convincing—the surfaces are comprised of thinly coated beds of luscious gesture and loving sentiment. But whereas my mother’s sometimes commissioned paintings depicted common people in the casual, bohemian setting of her home studio, Peyton’s “bohemia” is charged with an additional imperative of allure that adds a level of Warholian ego-gazing sophistication and seductiveness while perpetuating a latent, politicized us/them alienation. Peyton’s paintings have a frumpy glamour to them that is subtly cloying and aspirational. Once internalized by the viewer, this quality functions just like advertising.
(It’s interesting that even when Peyton paints herself lounging with the paper in a grey hoodie, in E.P. reading “Self Portrait, 2005,” her kelly green loafers steal the show. When I viewed this painting, my first thought was, are those Prada or Yves Saint Laurent Saint Germains, without the tassels? This would never happen in a Fairfield Porter painting, or, ironically, even in a Juergen Teller Marc Jacobs photograph.)
So apparently steeped in social and financial security are the figures in Peyton’s paintings that even her most genuinely haunted or hungover subjects feel graced by an aura of safety, indulgence and privilege. This can be seen as a plus, as it allows us all to inhabit the paintings and to be folded into the adolescent melancholy of her “Virgin Suicides” milieu. Clearly, she is comfortable in the studio, and has no qualms about putting painting first. One senses that none of her paintings could have been interrupted, that each is somehow integral to her enchanted life of sexy, mum voyeurism. Is she infatuated with her muse? Yes, because she has the leisure to be. Is her muse infatuated with himself? Yes, because he also has the leisure.
All this is to explain why such a platter of luscious treats collected at the New Museum left me bummed out—the comedown after the sugar high. In small doses I have always been able to appreciate Peyton’s paintings for what they are. But in the context of a major museum show like this, more is demanded of the viewer and critic. We are asked to fully take in the material and digest it all. I had a hard time getting the full meal down the hatch, despite the greasy, slippery, super-tasty vehicle driving the work’s quick “wet-on-wet” surface and the career of this fast-paced femme-dandy, which has now reached the mid-point bivouac in her ascent of Mount MoMA, where she’s likely to join the ranks of such luminaries as Alex Katz and David Hockney.
Funny how this familiar semi-transparent paint application has landed Peyton at the New Museum concurrently with Mary Heilmann, whose canvases on some level display the very same verve. If tidily applied, diluted medium is that “in,” then I guess it must also be on the verge of being that “over.” Could it be that, in the first decade of the millennium—as absinthe has begun to reappear in bars and the slightly more mucous-y and diseased Kai Althoff has been conjuring fin-de-siecle Vienna—we all feel the desire to taste and smell the medium more, to be tickled by its warmth, charm and eroticism (imagine tossing back a painting like a shot of brandy or a raw oyster). If the New Museum had the nerve to put the French painter Bernard Frize into the mix, or, for that matter, the younger Julian Kreimer (whose work is in a group show at Von Lintel this month), then I might go all-in for this quasi-speculative thesis. For now, I’ll assume that Peyton and Heilmann are making this joint statement by coincidence.
As charmed as I have generally been since the last recession by Elizabeth Peyton’s lusty poetry, I can never seem to get the enterprising cliquishness of the work out of my brain, or off my palate. Unfortunately, the suspicion arises that each painting is, always was and will thereafter be, barter for lifestyle, comfort and posterity—her portraits do not probe (or even intrude upon) the interior worlds of dreamy people, but they do rub our noses, ever so gently, in the exterior manifestation of people who can afford to live our fantasies. With this in mind, I would like to request a little spoonful of sorbet.
Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.