Elizabeth Peyton’s Gavin on the Phone is a jewel of a painting, a luminous microcosm that sumptuously depicts a key figure in New York’s downtown art scene and a dear friend of the artist’s, Gavin Brown. American painter Elizabeth Peyton is celebrated for her highly stylized paintings of cultural icons, which portray a wide range of subjects from Kurt Cobain to Napoleon to Marc Jacobs in her characteristic fey, androgynous fashion. Peyton’s refreshingly un-ironic paintings of the alluring public figures whom she admires—notably, the artist only paints those that inspire her and does not accept commissions—achieve a level of empathy, a casual intimacy that humanizes her subjects. Peyton rose to international fame not only for depicting celebrities whose images she largely culled from magazines and other media, but also for chronicling the cultural icons of New York’s downtown art scene, her own artistic milieu. In her 1998 painting Gavin on the Phone, Peyton portrays Gavin Brown, the suave young Brit who served as her gallerist from 1993 to 2014. Brown and Peyton notably rose to prominence together, as the first exhibition that Brown produced was Peyton’s acclaimed 1993 breakout show: a two-week exposition of her intimate portraits in Room 828 of the iconic Chelsea Hotel. With a clean, intelligent composition and a visual punch, the work at hand chronicles a close friendship and a working relationship; a fragile human being and a glamorous public figure; one man deep in thought and a frozen, crystalline moment in the flow of cultural history. Peyton is credited with having reinvigorated figurative painting in the ‘90s, a move which certainly facilitated the electrifying resurgence of the genre today. Refined, intimate, and unapologetically gorgeous, Gavin on the Phone is a testament to Peyton’s formidable talent, to that unique artistic approach that shook the art world.
Elizabeth Peyton’s style has been described as a hybrid of Realism and Conceptualism. She paints figuratively, her vividly rendered subjects instantly recognizable from the telling details of their features. However, her mannered technical approach of broad, bold strokes and diluted, jewel-tone oils subject her subjects to a severe stylization. In the best works, her mastery of color is reminiscent of Matisse, an artist whom she had long admired. Gavin on the Phone’s bold brushwork and vibrant colors paralell Matisse’s radicalform of portraiture in works such as The Young Sailor, 1906. In the work at hand, Gavin Brown is rendered in the artist’s characteristic androgynous style: he has the red lips, defined eyes, pale skin, and pronounced cheekbones that populate gay iconography. Peyton’s feminization of her—frequently male—subjects intriguingly problematizes the “male gaze.” In her pieces, it seems as if the artist has observed her male subjects unbeknownst to them, with a marvelous “ease and unselfconsciousness in looking” (N. Tscherny, “Elizabeth Peyton,” Art in America, 1 February 2009, n.p.). Peyton notes that she tends toward male subjects “who objectify themselves, which is a female trait” (ibid). To an extent, her style exteriorizes a perceived interiority, as portrait painting has traditionally striven to do. As she toys with gender and sexuality in her luscious pieces, the artist probes additional areas of inquiry, asking about the artificial distinction between public and private spheres and whether, contrary to Duchampian belief, art can be lushly, uncompromisingly, visually beautiful.
Andy Warhol’s iconic images of celebrities laid the groundwork for Peyton’s oeuvre, though her work emphatically eschews Warhol’s emotional detachment. Stylistically, her proclivity for stark backdrops and sensual palettes in her portraiture (she balks at the word “portraiture,” instead preferring the term “pictures of people”) have linked her to David Hockney and Alex Katz. In 2008, Peyton enjoyed a mid-career retrospective at the New Museum in New York, entitled Live Forever Now; the acclaimed show traveled to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, and the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. Peyton’s work functions within complex dichotomies, as it is bold and tender, public and personal, Conceptual and Realist. Above all, it is thoroughly suffused with admiration for and excitement around humanity, a visually luxurious celebration of the cultural climate that so electrifies the artist.