New York

Elizabeth Peyton: Familiar Faces in Unfamiliar Places

I once read that when we travel to new or strange places that a very interesting phenomenon occurs. Since we are a bit lost and disoriented, our brains miscalculate the faces of strangers in the crowd in an attempt to find the familiar. As synapses fire, a person on the sidewalk may look like an old lover—or we swear we glanced a family friend across the restaurant. Akin to the feeling of déjà-vu, a second glance may not even clarify the mirage. We rationalize and analyze until the nose, eyes, and lips suddenly belong to a stranger. A surprising amount of our brain activity is dedicated to facial cognition—so recognizing a familiar face, or an unfamiliar one, is an unexpectedly convoluted task. I often find myself in a new place and momentarily conflicted and lost in the faces around me, grasping for the comfort of a returned stare.

Klara (Klara Liden), 10 October, 2009, Berlin, colored pencil on paper. Photo courtesy of the artist and Michael Werner Gallery.

Finding my way around New York in spring, in addition to faces in the crowd, I see familiar friends in paintings. In her intensity, Klara, the recurring subject of Elizabeth Peyton’s latest exhibition at Michael Werner Gallery, eerily gazes out of the walls in a confounding way. I have followed Peyton’s work for years, so I know I have seen the angles of Klara’s face before. As I walk along the walls of the small, traditional space, it seems that Peyton has encapsulated that same uneasy instant before a face is assigned as friend or foreigner. The tone is one of apprehensive intimacy, like being caught walking in on a person’s very private conversation. In a style that is reminiscent of David Hockney’s 1970s figure drawings, Klara’s face is often carefully, precisely drawn. Klara’s androgynous features, short hair, and simple garb compound the peculiarity of her smoldering stare, and, as with much of Peyton’s work, if we didn’t know the gender of the subject, it could bend either way; the beauty in the work lies in its compounded sexual ambiguity.

Klara, 2012, Oil on aluminum veneered panel. Photo courtesy of the artist and Michael Werner Gallery.

Peyton is an artist for which I harbor mixed feelings. She is a lovely colourist, but her well-known portraits and still lifes can be consistently mediocre. It is telling that her works are often referred to as illustrations of modern life, which, fortunately for the works, portray particularly glittery bohemian celebrity subjects in a non-offensive style.  Perhaps the fact that she works primarily in small scale can also entice curators to show too many works instead of a selection of her strongest.

Applaudably, Michael Werner has culled an interesting and varied collection of Peyton’s works, none of which harbor the flatness of some of her well-circulated paintings, which can be heavy in paint and thin in complexity. Not to say her flatness isn’t useful. The often-compared-to Alex Katz successfully captures atmosphere in his figure works with simple lines and flat planes of colour, and Peyton comes close to this at times. What Michael Werner does is play on Peyton’s best strength: her ability to capture a sense of intimacy in her portraiture. These works are a bit more thoughtful than most, and as group, tell a particular story that is appropriate for the intimate and warm gallery space.

Klara, 2010, watercolor on paper. Photo courtesy of the artist and Michael Werner Gallery.

Though the subject is repeated again and again,  there is endless variation in style. In exception to the tortured stare of many of the works, there is a runny, watercolor sketch of Klara asleep in a cloud of soft hues. Watery, uncontrolled paint flows down the paper, echoing a hallucinatory dream state.

Wandering downtown, I run into Peyton’s familiar angular faces again in the West Village, at the artist’s second exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. The concrete-laden space is cavernous compared to Michael Werner’s gallery. Big, white space is always sexy, and the West Village itself is a great entry hall to the glamour that Peyton presents. The glass gallery doors lead me into a more familiar view of what Peyton has shown in the last few years. There is a cross-section of her work sprinkled along the walls: watercolor, acrylic, oil on paper, and this time, a variety of faces. These faces are familiar in that many are famous: singers, rock stars, artists, actors, and even the President. No one can deny the cool factor in Peyton’s work, and the sexy, hip gallery lends itself well to the overall character of her practice. Sadly, the small works get a bit lost in the massive space.

At the exhibition at Gavin Brown, Peyton has seemingly attempted to capture pivotal moments: opera singers in crescendo, rockers mid-head-bang, or the President and the First Lady in the throes of a kiss. Unfortunately, these critical moments are literally staged ones, and the artist seems only to capture that sense of phony emotion in moments that already feel cheaply wrought. She does much better in capturing the quiet atmosphere of banal moments, and continues to be successful painting her bread and butter: flowers and dazed rock stars. (Honestly.)

Elias Bender Ronnenfelt, 2013, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown's Enterprise.

I do particularly like that in both shows Peyton repeatedly employs a certain push-and-pull effect, created by the detailed face surrounded by looser, sketchier lines of the subject’s clothing and background. Besides adding a sense of dynamism that moves the eye, the selective realism re-emphasizes the face’s psychological import during human interaction. Perhaps it is an overly obvious thought, but it is interesting in revealing Peyton’s concern with the potency of visual exchanges in relationships. After all, in the best of Peyton’s portraiture, the sitter always seems to intensely stare. Whether starting into space, gazing at the viewer, burning with desire, or lost in thought, that stare always implies connectedness or disconnectedness—reminding me of that same moment of discomfort when miscalculating unfamiliar faces on the street and accidentally catching a stranger in an all too intimate locked eye.

Elizabeth Peyton, Klara, at Michael Werner Gallery continues through Jun 15, 2013

Elizabeth Peyton at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise continues through May 13, 2013