Portraitist Elizabeth Peyton is no Warhol (and not as fun as C.L.U.E. either)

The New Museum of Contemporary Art of Bowery is hosting Live Forever, works by portraitist Elizabeth Peyton, and so I took my excited little butt there last night, after a long day of work. (Not coincidentally, the New Museum is free on Thursdays from 7 to 10 p.m.)

I had only seen Peyton’s images online, but thought they used color well and that it was exciting to see something as traditional as figurative portraiture make a splash on the contemporary art scene. Peyton paints friends and also cultural icons in her remarkably cohesive oeuvre. As it was her paintings of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of grunge band Nirvana who committed suicide in the 90s, that brought Peyton into the limelight, I thought I would be encountering something Warhol-esque, where the confluence of the individual and pop culture become huge statements about our cultural identity.
My expectations were confounded. Peyton perhaps gives us an intimate glance into her interior world, but I wouldn’t even go so far as to say she’s making a statement about herself. And yet, she manages to say nothing about the people she portrays at the same time. Remarkable.

Peyton’s works are small and intimate, consequently seeming overwhelmed by the whiteness of the New Museum’s gallery space, and painterly in a broad way. Miniatures are often exquisitely detailed, but these approximately 10″ x 12″ works were broadly sketched out like watercolors. They were unlike traditional portraiture in that, instead of taking the subject in a formal pose, these were composed like Polaroids as if the subjects were caught unawares at extreme angles. They were well-painted and pleasant. Unfortunately, I can’t say much more in their favor.

While Peyton is a figurative portraitist, she does have a distinctive style that colonizes her subjects as her own. All her subjects become triangular faces with bright red mouths and slanty eyes, and she seems to prefer fey males. The works are stylized enough to be distinctly hers, and are more revealing of her than the subject. Perhaps that itself is the difference between her work and traditional portraiture.

Seeing her oeuvre at once, I had the idea of that this was her interior world in which the works were snapshots of memory.Peyton’s style does not seem to have evolved–any of the portraits could have been painted at any point in her career. Overall, it was a little…boring.

However, I insist you stop the New Museum anyhow, for a very small and very fun installation. Wedged into the interior staircase between the third and fourth floors, an installation called “C.L.U.E.” will entertain you better than clowns and acrobats at the big top. According to its press release, “C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience) is a collaboration between artists A.L. Steiner and robbinschilds (Layla Childs and Sonya Robbins), AJ Blandford, and Kinski. Like a living organism, C.L.U.E. adapts to the space it temporarily occupies. In this manifestation at the New Museum, it takes the form of site-specific performance, multichannel video installation, and video projection.”

What does that mean? It means that, once you put on the headphones, you can’t help but bob your head in time as the matching pair of girls do funny dances across parking lots, deserts and redwood forests, all via projector through the window onto the building across the way. A blast.

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