Blue eyes and red lips to die for: falling in love with Elizabeth Peyton’s ‘Live forever’

OK. It’s official. I’m in love. Or for those of you who want a more cerebral kind of reasoning: art doesn’t need to be strange or difficult to be intriguing; even if it’s easy it can be spellbinding. It’s been a week or so since I visited Elizabeth Peyton‘s retrospective ‘Live forever’ at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht and I still keep thinking about her paintings. Can’t make it to Maastricht? Barbara Gladstone in Brussels is coincidentally having a exhibition of this American painter too. Both Véronique Branquinho and Dries Van Noten were present at the opening. Oh yes, Peyton is hip, ánd controversial.

Blue eyes, white faces and red lips. And lots of rock stars. If you’d ask a teenager to summarize Elizabeth Peyton’s art, that would probably be his or her answer. Peyton is fascinated by what she considers to be her hero’s. So she paints Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and Liam Gallagher (Oasis). But she also draws or paints her close friends. In exactly the same manner. And she keeps her canvasses really small. It’s a strange experience to see all these vividly coloured, tiny paintings along the walls of those big rooms at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.

Yes, you’re looking at portraits. Just portraits (with a few exceptions). A celebration of radiant youth, as somebody called it. With a touch of dandyism. And yes, they resemble the pictures that you might find in magazines, but in a strange way they really are compelling. At least, that’s what I think. Because a lot of people aren’t buying this hype. Too easy, too repetitive, too romantic, they say. Someone once called her ‘a court painter to contemporary celebrity’.

The story of her first show, in 1993,  is quite legendary by now. Her art dealer (Gavin Brown) had no gallery, so he rented a room in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Peyton and Brown sent out postcards for people to come to the hotel: they had to go to the desk and ask for the keys to room 828. In the room, they’d see drawings of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette and Queen Elizabeth. Her first exhibition in London was in a pub in Brixton.

In a recent interview with Art World-magazine, she describes how she felt, at that time. And how she came to doing the portraits that she’s become famous for.  ‘I felt totally unconnected to any culture around me. I’d much rather disappear into a story about Marie Antoinette. And I felt like the people I was spending time with, listening to their records, were just as close as people I knew down the street.’

‘I paint them because I want to single them out and say this person is important. I want a picture of this person. I feel the same way about the still lifes and the paintings of the cities. It’s something you want to hang on to.’

I’d certainly hang on to my Peyton, if I’d have one. Because I love how these paintings are about painting itself. About capturing a certain kind of magic. About youth and the fleetingness of time. But I think I can forget about that, because in the meanwhile Peyton’s tightly cropped close-ups are sold for prices that even make collectors frown. Live forever, in Maastricht, comprises work from the last fifteen years, and the one thing you wonder, after having seen the exhibition is: where will Peyton go from here? It will be really interesting to see where she  is heading for now. She has been collaborating with Matthew Barney recently, for instance.

If you can’t make it to Maastricht, be sure to drop by at Barbara Gladstone in Brussels, before December 23. You might not be struck in the same way by Peyton’s art, because you will be missing out on the bright colours. The exhibition of recent work mainly consists of drawings and watercolors. But it’s a nice introduction to Peyton’s world. More info about that, here. You’ll find quite a few of her recent drawings there too. For more of her paintings, check out Gavin Brown’s site here.


One Response to “Blue eyes and red lips to die for: falling in love with Elizabeth Peyton’s ‘Live forever’”

  1. Gary Manzo Says:

    I too adore her work. I can’t explain it, but it moves me as does many works by Alex Katz.

    I was surpised to discover how small in scale she works, as images I’ve seen only on the Internet seem monumental somehow.

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