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Issue 238

The Fandom and Fantasy of Elizabeth Peyton

A sparse exhibition at David Zwirner, London, sees the artist embrace pointillism, but her subjects remain the same: beautiful men 

BY Ella Slater in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 26 JUN 23

Elizabeth Peyton’s latest solo show, ‘Angel’, mediates human fragility through a lover’s gaze. The 16 paintings and works on paper depict personal acquaintances, such as her friend and gallerist Lucas Zwirner, alongside the well-known cultural figures, including the late singer Elvis Presley, typical of the artist’s work. Peyton seems less concerned with portraying individual likeness than with capturing her subjects with unbridled, luminous energy.

Elizabeth Peyton
Elizabeth Peyton, Liberation Warrior (Lara), 2023. Courtesy: © the artist and David Zwirner

The gallery’s tall ceilings and sparse curation amplify the small scale of the works, inviting slow viewing and creating a sense of intimacy. Peyton’s short, layered oil and watercolour brushstrokes adopt a distinctly impressionistic quality here. In Liberation Warrior (Lara) (2023), for example, a muted facial profile emerges from a vase of flowers rendered in jewel-like tones redolent of a Paul Signac pointillist sunset. The pensive expression of the ghostly figure seems at odds with the brilliance of the artist’s palette, the colours suggesting warmth in an otherwise melancholy and disembodied scene.

Peyton’s affection for her subject is most palpable in works such as Light (Lucas & Flowers) (2023) or Thus Love (Echo) (2023), in which her mark-making is dense but considered. Mai (Afterlife) after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai, 1776 (2023) is a close-cropped pencil and pastel study of Mai’s face from Reynolds’s full-length portrait of the first recorded Polynesian man to visit Britain. Peyton’s version is devoid of background and drawn in sweeping shades of fuchsia, which render the face with a tenderness typical of the artist’s work. Reynolds’s original painting, recently acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery, is widely celebrated. 

Elizabeth Peyton
Elizabeth Peyton, Mai (Afterlife) after Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Mai (Omai), 1776, 2023. Courtesy: © the artist and David Zwirner

Peyton’s portraits of attractive male celebrities are often bittersweet, tinged with a yearning for youth and past beauty. Elvis (1956) (2023) shows the king of rock’ n’ roll – all long eyelashes and swollen pout – in a kitsch wash of iridescent greys and lilacs. Elvis Angel (Elvis’ Eyes) (2023) is a highly cropped composition; the late musician’s ambiguous expression could be a gaze into a lover’s eyes, or he could be on the verge of tears. A stroke of blue cuts across his amethyst face, perhaps a streak of sparkling light or a rolling bead of sweat. There is a notable contrast between the nostalgia these paintings embody and the more immediate energy of other works. For example, Mani Rimdu (2023), which references the Buddhist festival celebrated annually in Nepal, freezes an anonymous woman in a moment of eternal dance; spiralling strokes of oil pastel and coloured pencil evoke a tangible sense of movement.

Near to the Elvis portraits, the unfinished pencil drawing TC (Timothée) (2022–23), the forlorn Titanic (Jack and Rose) (2023) and the ethereal Titanic (Leonardo) (2023) similarly veer into a kind of innocent eroticism that recalls teenage fandom and fantasy. Invariably, Peyton’s subjects are beautiful, though they are largely rooted in the culture and aesthetic of the 1990s, when the artist first rose to prominence. In a 2019 piece for this magazine, Peyton spoke of her subjects as ‘containers of their time’. This may be true, but it’s her gaze – rather than that of her sitters – which comes across most vividly in ‘Angel’.

Elizabeth Peyton
Elizabeth Peyton, Titanic (Jack & Rose), 2023.Courtesy: © the artist and David Zwirner

Peyton renders all her subjects – actors, musicians, lovers, friends – with a romantic painterly quality that seems to belie a longing or a sense of nostalgia. Although not revolutionary, her works are gems: moments of pause and windows onto the human frailty and interiority that unites us all – across the fourth wall, the saturation of hypermedia and time. 

Elizabeth Peyton’s ‘Angel’ is on view at David Zwirner, London, until 28 July.

Main image: Elizabeth Peyton, Ang (Ang Tshering Lama) (detail), 2023. Courtesy: © the artist and David Zwirner

Ella Slater is a writer based in London, UK.