Kurt with cheeky num-num (1995) is part of a celebrated series of Elizabeth Peyton paintings using the Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain as its subject. Exhibited in the artist's breakthrough 1995 exhibition at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, the show was dedicated to her portraits of Cobain. It not only launched her own career, but also reinvigorated a genre mostly neglected in contemporary art at the time--portrait painting.
In reviewing the Gavin Brown's enterprise exhibition, Roberta Smith wrote, that "they shed light on the ways 80s appropriation continues to proliferate in the 90s; on the hold that realism, manipulated to varying degrees, exerts on young artists, and also on the emotionalism inherent in a lot of current work." Although very much rooted in contemporary painting, "in front of Ms. Peyton's rendering of Mr. Cobain you may find yourself thinking more of Jean Seberg's St. Joan or Balthus's Heathcliff than of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and other members of 'that stupid club' Mr. Cobain's mother said her son joined when he took his life." (R. Smith, "Blood and Punk Royalty to Grunge Royalty" The New York Times May 24, 1995). Writing for Artforum, Joshua Decter also wrote positively of the exhibition, singling out Kurt with Cheeky num-num, as a "Christ-like Cobain being frisky with his calico cat", calling the exhibition a desire for the artist to "become a charter member of the Kurt Cobain fan club, offering these "memento mori" as tokens of solidarity with what might lie behind the singer's mythology or mystique" (J. Decter, "Elizabeth Peyton," Artforum, May 1995, p. 101).
A lexicon of beautiful and androgynous rock stars, Peyton's early subjects were almost never painted from "life." Instead, they were culled from photographic images taken from popular-culture sources such as People and MTV. Often described as fairytale illustrations, Peyton's loose rhythmic brushstrokes, sumptuous palettes, and light-capturing glazes transform larger-than-life subjects into intimately familiar individuals. With no suggestions of the music industry or the sensational tabloid gossip which often accompanies controversial figures as Cobain, Peyton's pictures employ the same heartfelt intensity of a personal encounter and contest the detachment of contemporary culture and its hollow celebrity fixation.
Kurt with cheeky num-num shows a different side of Cobain, one that belies the grunge rock star persona. As Cheeky num-num balances on Cobain's extended arm, the singer directs an affectionate gaze towards the small kitten. In a practice indebted to Warhol, Peyton has appropriated a series of commercial photographs, to which she has applied her own magical touch of thinly applied oils and lustrous glazes. The palette she has chosen for this particular painting draws from the aqua hues of Nirvana's chart topper All Apologies.
All of Peyton's jewel-like paintings are realized out of deep admiration for their particular subjects. Peyton states, "There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally. The way I perceive them is very similar, in that there's no difference between certain qualities that I find inspiring in them." (E. Peyton, quoted in S. Lafreniere, "A Conversation with the Artist," Elizabeth Peyton, New York, 2005, p. 16). The series of Cobain paintings speaks to the complex emotions she felt towards Cobain, as well as the tragic event itself. Furthermore, the ongoing representation of the singer in paintings like Alizarin Kurt (1995), Blue Kurt (1995), Zoe's Kurt (1995), and more recently Kurt Writing (Newsweek) (2002) shows Peyton's ability to create a varied group of works using the same subject.
Peyton's portraits simultaneously transform the commercial popular-culture photograph into high art, and the condemned celebrity into an ethereal contemporary protagonist. Peyton's Kurt with Cheeky num-num invites Cobain to Come as You Are, 'as a trend, as a friend, as a [not so] old memory.' Insightful and subtle, Peyton's portraits capture the fragile beauty of her own generation.