‘Making art is making something live forever. Human beings especially – we can’t hold on to them in any way. Painting and art is a way of holding onto things and making things go on through time’
‘It doesn’t matter who they are or how famous they are but rather how beautiful is the way they live their lives and how inspiring they are for others. And I find this in people I see frequently as much as in people I never met’
Towering two metres in height, Jake Chapman is one of Elizabeth Peyton’s largest paintings to date, and stands among the great icons of her early oeuvre. Rendered with deft brushstrokes in a sumptuous palette of glowing crimson tones, it is a masterful full-length portrait of the British artist, who rose to prominence with his brother Dinos in the 1990s. Executed in 1996, the work stems from a pivotal moment in the careers of both painter and subject. Together with Piotr Uklanski, whom Peyton depicted in a companion work of the same year, Chapman was one of the first visual artists to enter her pantheon of contemporary cultural figures, marking a significant move away from the historical and literary subjects of her earlier practice. Here, Peyton captures him poised on the brink of international acclaim: the following year, the brothers would be propelled onto a global stage following their inclusion in Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy, London. Peyton, too, was enjoying newfound critical acclaim, following the stand-out success of her second solo exhibition in New York. In contrast to irreverent conceptual aesthetics favoured by the Chapmans and their Young British Artist contemporaries, Peyton forged new directions for the timehonoured medium of painting. Extending the legacy of Andy Warhol and David Hockney, both of whom she would depict in the years following the present work, Jake Chapman exemplifies the intimate, familial tenderness which would go on to define her portraits of friends and public figures alike.
Whilst figures such as Napoleon, Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette dominated Peyton’s earliest output, by 1996 she had begun to explore a more contemporary line-up. As well as Chapman and Uklanski, her subjects from this period included musicians – notably Jarvis Cocker, Liam Gallagher and John Lennon – and would later encompass sportsmen, actors and members of the royal family. Fusing the luxuriant brushwork of nineteenth-century painting, the compositional rigour of geometric abstraction and the cool veneer of pop art, Peyton’s portraits reflect fantasies of youth, beauty and fame. Frequently working from magazine photographs and other printed sources, she probes the concept of identity in a media-driven age. ‘There is no separation for me between people I know through their music or photos and someone I know personally’, she explains. ‘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 Elizabeth Peyton, exh. cat., Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 2001, p. 18). The devotional aesthetic of her portraits has frequently been compared to Byzantine icon paintings, as well as the intimate studio portraiture of Nadar, Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Each painting harbours a distinct narrative charge, laced with ambiguous strains of nostalgia, romance, anxiety and vulnerability. ‘It doesn’t matter who they are or how famous they are but rather how beautiful is the way they live their lives and how inspiring they are for others’, Peyton has asserted. ‘And I find this in people I see frequently as much as in people I never met’ (E. Peyton, quoted in Elizabeth Peyton, exh. cat., Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 2001, p. 6).
Peyton had painted Chapman the previous year: a single portrait head of just 14 by 11 inches, in which his flaming red hair and lips were set against a pale backdrop. In the present work, Chapman’s fiery features infuse the entire canvas, giving rise to a deep red backdrop that would come to define many of her works from this period. ‘It’s always about the person’, Peyton has said, ‘making them there, making them look the best they can, and saving them forever’ (E. Peyton, quoted in L. Pilgram, ‘An Interview with a Painter’, Parkett 53, 1998, p. 59). For Peyton, portraiture is a means of capturing a person’s unique physical and psychological energy; in the case of those subjects unknown to her personally, it is a means of discovering it. Ultimately, works such as Jake Chapman ask how paint can bring us closer to someone who, through the distance engendered by time, place and image, might otherwise seem untouchable. The tactile properties of pigment offer a way of suggesting, and indeed preserving, that which can never truly be known. ‘That’s what it’s all about’, she explains, ‘– making art is making something live forever. Human beings especially – we can’t hold on to them in any way. Painting and art is a way of holding onto things and making things go on through time’ (E. Peyton, quoted in J. Cocker, ‘Elizabeth Peyton’ in http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/elizabeth-peyton/, [accessed 7 April 2017]).