Even when the subject is different, people always paint the same painting (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York, 1975, p. 149).
Elizabeth Peyton's endearing, jewel-like portraits are frequently, and transparently, based on photographic ephemera: newspaper images, film stills and vintage black-and-white prints. Close examination of these photographs of the sitter deconstruct the mystique surrounding her paintings, emphasizing her social-documentary ambitions. Peyton was inspired by the studio portraiture of Nadar, Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Mapplethorpe, who all photographed their friends and intimates. As revealing as these photographs can be, they alone cannot measure up to her intimate work with paint and panel.
The present portrait depicts Craig Wadlin, age twenty-four, a familiar subject for the artist who is featured in Peyton's canvases and works on paper throughout the 1990s. Wadlin was one of eight enterprising art school undergraduates--along with Soibian Spring, Sarah Rossiter, Will Rollins, Shannon Pultz, Daniel McDonald, Gillian Haratani and Patterson Beckwith--who made up Art Club 2000, an artist's collective founded in the 1990s. The group made art and produced exhibitions--two activities they believed as having separate implications. The group began while its members were at Cooper Union in New York's East Village, where Hans Haacke and Mark Dion both taught and became a unique clash of commodity fetishism and institutional critique.
The collective was formed through the instigation of Colin de Land, the late New York gallerist who became known for his anti-conventional commercial gallery, American Fine Arts, Co. De Land's interest in developing the club stemmed from his disappointment with the "machinations" of the New York art scene and an art economy predicated on money and stardom. In many ways AC2K--a group of young people with nothing to lose--could be seen as de Land's 'fuck you' to the art world and its careerist denizens.
This cast of characters of the art world fray are central to Peyton's portraits: "One of the extraordinary things about Peyton's oeuvre is that it can serve as a chronicle of a particular period--at a certain moment in the history of culture in certain places among a few people who were enthusiastically making it. Sometimes they knew each other; sometimes they were just mutual fans. In retrospect, her paintings have become a kind of essence of a fifteen-year period in popular culture, something like a complicated perfume that retains the sensory grace notes of a hundred different exquisite elements, but on its own is distinct" (L. Hoptman, Live Forever Elizabeth Peyton, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 225).
Elizabeth Peyton is often associated with the celebrity obsessed and content documenter, Andy Warhol. Though unlike Andy's fixation on fame and voyeurism in action (young men and women at clubs mingling with the New York elite and Hollywood), Peyton is most interested in the contemplative gesture. In the present painting, Craig glances off to the side, not directly engaging with the viewer, in a private rather than active moment. The almost vacuum-like quiet of the background brings this privacy to the forefront of the picture as if the subject is a detail in the larger world outside the frame.
The present portrait is among the largest of Peyton's paintings, almost twice the size of other portraits of Craig she created over the years. And yet though larger in scale, the painting still reads as an intimate moment between the artist and her sitter. Here, if we look at the obvious patterns in the artist's choice of subject matter, Peyton depicts what she loves the most: youth and beauty. Gorgeous young men, often experimenting with their style and hair color, often in the art world, appear with great frequency in her paintings. Like David Hockney and Alex Katz, Peyton draws on her social circle not only because of her connection to their craft (painting, music, acting) but because of how they look.
As 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).