Has Elizabeth Peyton-bashing become a sub-genre of art criticism?

July 20, 2009 · Print This Article

You know, like Julian Schnabel-bashing was back in the day, before he started directing? I’m thinking yes. The unkindness of it all aside (and that makes for a very big aside, I know), Peyton does inspire some of the most deliciously evil descriptive sentences among those art critics who dislike her work. The latest example of anti-Peytonism comes from the normally polite Ben Street of Art21 blog. In his latest “Letter from London,” he reviews Live Forever, the Peyton survey that made the rounds in the U.S. last year to mixed reviews (to put a positive spin on it) and is now on view at The Whitechapel Gallery in London. The Brits aren’t taking any greater of a shine to her work than we did, judging from Street’s review:

“I don’t understand why anyone would like Elizabeth Peyton, but I also don’t understand why anyone would like egg whites or Coldplay or The Shawshank Redemption, so maybe I’ll never understand. Her first UK solo show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery is so fey and self-conscious that I had to crush a can of Bud against my forehead and punch the wall out of sheer repressed masculine frustration. The drive to the police station and subsequent waiting around for my lawyer gave me sufficient time to mull over Peyton’s work. If I did like her work, what might I say about it? That its intimate scale and willful prettification of some of the nineties’ butt-ugliest pop stars brings together teenage fandom and the tradition of 18th-century portraiture? That its objectification of sallow Caucasian male beauty strikes a blow for the female gaze? That the breathless swishiness of her paintbrush and contre-jour light effects create poignant elegies to the transience of youth? That Peyton’s reimagining of Delacroix as the drummer in The Strokes and Napoleon as a Lower East Side DJ is somehow a radical reinterpretation of history? In Peyton’s words, Napoleon was “a beautiful man and he had a big vision about life.” Ever seen Elizabeth Peyton and Sasha Baron Cohen in the same room together?”

Yeah, o.k., granted. But what I want to know is, as chroniclers of their respective art scenes, what makes Dash Snow so “subversive” (see round up of Snow’s obit coverage here) while Peyton is the freakin’ devil? Was it Snow’s semen-stained “Fuck the Police” thing? Is that really all it takes??

O, Art World. I will never understand your whimsical ways. At any rate, you can watch video footage from Peyton’s New Museum show at Vernissage TV, to whom credit for the image below is also due.

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8 Responses to “Has Elizabeth Peyton-bashing become a sub-genre of art criticism?”

  1. Claudine -I think a more healthy and accurate approach would be New York School bashing -Peyton is nothing special -in fact when one looks at bay area figurative painting of the mid-50’s -60’s for instance she doesn’t make the cut -and yet next to some of her peers (Kilimnick) -she comes off positively briliiant- its a long way down from works like Door To The River or Havana Suburb or Who’s Name Was Writ on Water -to name three modern masterpieces -to any of the trendy junk coming from this group of painters associated with New York today – perhaps the time has come to acknowlege the decline-

  2. I don’t see it as bashing. I see it as a few people finally coming to their visual senses. Yes, Snow’s work was worse, and sorry to speak ill of the tragically dead, but his presence in the artworld elite AT ALL had simply to do with his family connections. But just because someone famous is worse doesn’t make another bad artist any better.

  3. Its interesting: when you look at the high water mark of the New York School -Pollock -de kooning -joan mitchell -and Hans Hoffman I would think -and look at what is happening now -it is a ‘revenge of the philistines’ -the talk a few years ago that ‘Currin could really paint’—why? because he can do a third rate Norman Rockwell pastiche? -There was a time when the context and lineage of de Kooning for instance -or Hoffman was understood -that these were european masters extending a tradition of mastery to American painting- that there is nothing flailing or undisciplined about this work -but rather great understanding-control and vision -along with technique taking place—and now we are discussing Currins painting of a thanksgiving turkey -how convincing it is? Convincingly idiotic and insipid -it does accomplish that-

  4. Claudine Ise Says:

    Mark, Shark, thanks for your comments. You’re right when you say “just because someone famous is worse doesn’t make another bad artist any better,” and I def. wasn’t arguing that we should reconsider Peyton’s oeuvre or anything. The laudatory Snow coverage was just annoying to me and it was more about questioning that. But both of your comments highlight the false dichotomy I set up btw. Peyton/Snow as chroniclers of their scene — the wrath Peyton inspires may more accurately be due to the hype surrounding her (lack of) abilities as a painter – and her vaunted role as a great painter of her day — Snow’s celebrity was due mostly to his grunge-glam lifestyle (though smart writers have argued otherwise, see recent post on Art Fag City which I’m too lazy to link to this AM).

    Mr. Snow will be remembered lovingly by his friends and family I am sure – but I think his 15 minutes of art historical import are already over – I don’t think people will still be talking about him next week — but Peyton will linger on awhile longer as a lightening rod for various issues in contemporary painting. That doesn’t make her work any better– just better fodder for art critics, I think.

  5. Well Caludine -you hit on another very interesting topic -at least to me -that being the precipitous decline of the New York school -from Peyton -to Josh Smith and most points in between -its pretty grim- incompetent -and I should note-this miasma extends to the critics-who for the most part (there are several notable exceptions -Perl -Cotter-) seem almost completely clueless- illiterate! when it comes to the language of painting -and by extension-what is visual- its simply stunning -mind boggling!

  6. I would like to point out that there are indeed wonderful things going on in NYC — I have regular contact with many great artists there. But WK is right in that what gets ATTENTION is mostly the butt end of the scene. I suspect the decline is 99% in the CRITICS, a decline he points out. A synecdoche of the overall decline in talented observers/critics in the artworld. And that in NYC, the spot that had generally lead the way.

    You are right about Snow, I think, Claudine. And about Peyton to an extent too — in short she is interesting as a symptom, not as an artist.

  7. Mark -David Reed is a very good painter -there are other serious painters in New York- compared to where it was at its apogee- decline has happened -precipitous decline -one need look no further than the recent ascension of Mary Heilman -and or Josh Smith -in the realm of more modernist-abstraction to see what I mean- this has to do with both artists and the critics who champion this falling off—–

  8. Agreed to an extent, WK, BUT to that extent the whole WORLD has fallen off. NYC did have Pop and Minimal and Conceptualism and East Village and and and— all after Ab Ex. Look at Germany — where they often proclaim the end of the US, and then promote Daniel Richter as a “star”! Gimme a break. I think Mary is/was historically important (as stubborn defense of painting during and against puritanical anti-painting-ists like Judd — similar to and leading to Lasker and Reed who are pals of hers). Josh Smith pretty well sums up a TON of problems. But looking beyond the US I see the same problems everywhere, and see it in what gets focused on.

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