aking its title from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Elizabeth Peyton’s exhibition “Da scheinest Du, o lieblichster der Sterne” presented paintings and works on paper, mostly portraits inspired by various operas. Unlike Peyton’s early, vibrantly colored depictions of friends and celebrities, the paintings included in this exhibition were loosely rendered in a dark, predominantly purple-and-brown palette.
The painting Werthers Tod (2014), depicting the catastrophic moment in Jules Massenet’s opera when the lovelorn Werther (played by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann) commits suicide, is a successful one. But the similarly titled Werthers Tod (Jonas Kaufmann), 2014, a more closely cropped portrait of the singer, is less felicitous. With its painterly drips, the work comes off as an exercise in manufacturing angst.
Gloriously strange was one of the exhibition’s outliers, Clear Eyes, Full Hearts Can’t Lose (Tim), 2014, which takes the Friday Night Lights television character Tim Riggins (portrayed by actor Taylor Kitsch) as its subject. The actor’s face is barely painted in, save for the eyes and, over them, two patches in royal blue that could be bruises or drag makeup.
Peyton has long been drawn to the theatrical image. But, conveying dramatics in painting is a precarious tightrope to walk: when done perfectly, it’s an astonishing feat; otherwise, failure is certain.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 126.