Elizabeth Peyton’s Portraits of Pretty Things

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The New York Sun

Elizabeth Peyton is best known for her facile portraits of famous people.

Although the 43-year-old artist sometimes works in black and white, most of her paintings, drawings, and prints are suffused with sensuous color: throbbing reds, luminous blues, and dusky purples that she juxtaposes against wan skin tones and feverish red lips. Ms. Peyton favors young men as subject matter, and has increasingly turned to her own intimate circle of hipsters and artists for models, individuals who are, unsurprisingly, as attractive as the celebrities Ms. Peyton gravitates toward. The results are stylized images of Byronic intensity that veer in the direction of fashion illustration. Ms. Peyton has routinely drawn from photographic sources for her art-making, but as “Elizabeth Peyton: Portrait of an Artist,” now on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., demonstrates, Ms. Peyton is a capable photographer in her own right. The 50 color prints on exhibit were taken by Ms. Peyton over the last decade, and document the lives of the same friends who have appeared in her paintings and drawings.

The focus is still on attractive young men, many of them painters, photographers, and filmmakers who, like Ms. Peyton, are part of the art dealer Gavin Brown’s stable of cutting-edge artists. The choice to feature so many of the artists represented by Mr. Brown, Nick Relph, Tony Just, and Franz Ackermann to name just a few, gives the exhibition the subtly commercial gloss of a promotional vehicle for Mr. Brown’s gallery. But galleries do operate in many ways like extended families for their artists. And the inclusion of photographs of Ms. Peyton’s ex-husband, Rirkrit Tiravanija, another Brown artist, and the gallery dealer’s son Max only reinforces that impression. Ms. Peyton’s female friends are also present, but remain in the minority. There are also a few self-portraits, but they are surprisingly bland, especially when compared to Ms. Peyton’s “Born to Ride (E.P.),” and bring to mind the clumsy efforts of high schoolers trying to appear artsy on their senior yearbook pages. But Ms. Peyton isn’t a navel gazer. As the double entendre of the exhibition title suggests, Ms. Peyton believes her friends reflect the best part of herself. Consequently, the exhibition is really about them.

So what do we learn about Ms. Peyton’s tribe? As the many shots of men in railway stations and train compartments testify, they travel a lot. They don’t shave every day. They smoke cigarettes and stay out late. They hang out at home on broken-down couches. But they have brilliant smiles and some, like Martin McGeown, playfully mug for the camera. Unlike Ms. Peyton’s paintings, which tend to present her subjects in romantic isolation, there is a sense of camaraderie and bonhomie in her photographs, which is reinforced by the tight placement of the photographs in the snug rooms of the Aldrich Museum, itself a bit of a contemporary design jewel box. A few pictures feature a Peyton photographic portrait placed prominently on the wall behind the subject: a neat dialogical trope that reinforces the intimate web of relationships among the artists. Gradually, though, Ms. Peyton does begin to assert her sense of composition and color. She moves closer to her subjects and fills the frame with soft flesh and tousled hair, lending the photographs the same erotic charge that animates her paintings.

Many of the images were preparatory steps for Ms. Peyton’s drawings and paintings. And in showing them, Ms. Peyton is lifting the veil somewhat on her own creative processes. The photographs of Tony Just, for instance, catalog Ms. Peyton’s efforts to capture the painter’s rakish features, which she then encapsulated in her painting “Luing (Tony)”. The same efforts can be seen in the photographs of man-child Nick Relph. Ms. Peyton has said of her portraits, “A lot of times people will say, ‘These men don’t look like that. There’s no way they have red lips like that, and such skin.’ But they do.” And she’s right. But their beauty, so lovingly rendered in Ms. Peyton’s oils and color-pencil drawings, becomes mundane subject matter in Ms. Peyton’s photographs. This is, in part, because Ms. Peyton has chosen to emphasize the momentary, rather than use the camera to delve. Beyond the famous names and the overall comeliness of the sitters, however, there is very little visual information. The images are no more than casual pictures of past good times. And while it’s cool to be included, the viewer can’t help but feel stuck at the fringes of the party.

Until November 16 (258 Main St., Ridgefield, Conn., 203-438-4519).

The New York Sun

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