BY Gregor Muir in Reviews | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Elizabeth Peyton

BY Gregor Muir in Reviews | 09 AUG 95

Okay, so maybe the Prince Albert pub is located in the least glamourous part of London ­ Coldharbour Lane, Brixton ­ and maybe the clientele are a bit tatty, but why Time Out magazine refused to list Elizabeth Peyton's show is still baffling. In New York, Peyton has exhibited in room 828 of the Chelsea Hotel and more recently, at Gavin Brown's hole-in-the-wall gallery on Broome Street. For the time being at least, the work continues to establish itself through socially charged and resonant environments. Hence, Peyton's drawings line the nicotine-stained walls of a pub where her preferred old-fashioned frames act as a form of camouflage. In fact, the work blends in so well that on the opening night several people were overheard apologising to representatives of Brixton's Cabinet Gallery ­ Peyton's hosts ­ for having missed the exhibition: 'But, you're here. This is the show'.

Peyton's seemingly dated drawing technique ­ ink washes, fragile pencil work and smudged charcoal ­ recalls the artistic sensibilities of the Royal Academy Summer Show. Furthermore, Peyton's subject matter, an eclectic portraiture of historical and contemporary personalities, is excruciatingly private. The question is: are these drawings for real? The sensitivity which Peyton brings to such far-flung characters as John McEnroe, Sid Vicious and Marie Antoinette is intriguing. Contrary to the works crypto-reactionary appearance, there is more to these drawings than meets the eye.

Princess Kurt in 1991 (1995) shows the late Nirvana front man sporting a tiara and stubble. Like a swanky Society portrait from the 30s or a Sickert from the time when he painted murky Camden dancehalls, Peyton's unusually feminine Cobain is depicted as a wistful débutante with little more to do than await the invention of Immac. Nearby, another Cobain ­ Kurt Smoking in 1992 (1995) ­ is hung above a table where intimates gather most nights and, consciously or not, reciprocate what is going on in the picture beside them. Kurt Smoking in 1992 confuses Cobain with a Wildean cigarette dandy who, in the words of author Richard Klein, 'carries aesthetic refinement to elegant lengths by beautifully performing activities that are not worth doing'. From Cobain we move to the young Churchill in his study ­ again, an aura of thoughtfulness and destiny prevails ­ to Princess Elizabeth and Cecil Beaton (royalty and privilege) to Fred Hughes, who could name all the Kings and Queens of England.

Royalty alone does not account for the drawings of Count Montesquiou Dressed as Ludwig as Louis XIV and Marlon Brando as Napoleon in 1953 (both works 1994). Given that Peyton's subjects have transcended reality in some shape or form by becoming famous and/or Sovereign, the dialogue between the works opens up another layer of meaning; namely attitude. Five years ago the BBC made a documentary about Vogueing. With all the airs and graces of Elite models, young black males paraded down a makeshift catwalk in a Brooklyn sports hall. Some wielded their hands about their face in a rigid imitation of clichéd fashion photography, while others sashayed in couture. They were all being judged. One contestant, wearing a Ralph Lauren double breasted blazer, white trousers and sailor's cap,.had an assistant who ran on stage with a table, chair, champagne and ice bucket. With one hand in pocket ­ thumb on the outside ­ he graced his table for three minutes, nonchalantly sipping champagne while his assistant screamed to him, 'O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E! Opulence! You own everything!'.

The collective state of mind of Peyton's subjects may well be the connection that we so desperately seek. All are seriously opulent and, in a manner of speaking, own everything because they invented themselves, their reputations and the world around them. This oblique and temporal universe ­ mediated in the drawings through the novels of Nancy Mitford, Balzac, MTV and The Warhol Diaries ­ is in keeping with Peyton's almost teenage introspection and technical reserve. Moreover, the exhibition is all the more apt for taking place in a pub, where ­ after a few pints ­ the regulars forget themselves and get more carried away as the evening wears on. By the time the bell rings for last orders many are fantastically drunk, waxing lyrical on what they would do if they were John Major, Princess Diana or Hugh Grant. Turning to the drawings on the wall, it is only natural to want to escape the reality of the Prince Albert and enter Peyton's near perfect world.

Gregor Muir is director of collection, international art, Tate. He lives in London, UK.