Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits of androgynous punk rockers, celebrities, friends, and opera stars are usually credited with presaging renewed critical interest in a type of painting that used to be dismissed as shallow. Peyton’s sketchy portraits are enticing. However, they lack the tinge of irony found in the paintings of her contemporaries, such as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. She would often seem besotted with her subjects, who include Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Wagnerian tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
Peyton’s oddly provocative work seems closer to the Italian portrait painter Giovanni Boldini than to Alice Neel—it reveals social status and attitude, not psychological traits. What saves Peyton’s portraits is the very affectation exuded by her subjects. Her art appears to be more influenced by neuroscience—and particularly the “mirror neurons” in our brains that are triggered by the sight of faces, especially familiar ones—than by psychology. Peyton’s portraits bear closer comparison with Karen Kilimnik’s pictures of starry-eyed adolescents that first appeared a decade earlier.
At the entrance to Gavin Brown’s enterprise there was a single small portrait on each of four huge white walls. The installation made the paintings look important and established an unexpected sense of gravitas. In the galleries that followed, a hawk-like profile of Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, stood out. So did an almost abstract black-and-blue painting of the two male leads from Brokeback Mountain. There was also a tender Barack kissing Michelle on the nose, and Peyton’s charming self-portrait with her dog Felix. The best work in this show was a barely there watercolor of the provocative artist Klara Liden.
Uptown at Werner it’s all Klara all the time. She looks wary, pensive, or sad. “Klara 13 Pictures” includes monotypes, etchings, pencil drawings, oils, and one wonderfully pale watercolor of Klara along with a single inert still life of a vase filled with pink and red flowers. We wonder whether Peyton’s absence of irony represents a new tendency toward anti-cynicism, or whether naturalism is a new post-post-conceptual stance. Or is her work so utterly traditional that it might be considered a challenge to hipper, more conceptual forms of art?
“Elizabeth Peyton: Klara 13 Pictures” is on view through June 15 at Michael Werner.