Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels at National Portrait Gallery
54-year-old American artist Elizabeth Joy Peyton’s Aire and Angels opens this month at the National Portrait Gallery. The show focuses on the last ten years of Peyton’s work, and though most pieces are displayed in the exhibition room on the ground floor, some of her portraits interrupt history at the Tudor, seventeenth century, and Victorian collections on the first floor, including a red-lipped, fiery red-haired, and deathly pale Kurt Cobain beside the pale, menacing Queen Elizabeth I – an apposition that does not quite make sense, beside the idea of an untainted ideal that outlives the person. To this reviewer, the portraits on the first floor of the gallery suggest a resistance to change when it comes to whiteness pleading boyish innocence.
Her collection of dreamy and youthful indie portraits of friends, family and lovers, with all their motivations, fascinations and inspirations, feels as if they are trapped in a timeless moment of teenage fandom bordering on a weird sort of fetish. The exhibition includes a boxer short-busting portrait of National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan, a friend of Peyton’s.
Captured from memory and imagination, her paintings and drawings of artists and friends expand upon portraiture by including flowers expressive of the sentiment associated with the genre. The bright red petals seem like an obvious metaphor for the raging femininity with which she has worked her way into the midst of portraits of monarchs, knights and fair maidens. In the pictures’ juxtaposition with the permanent collection, the glory and glitz of empire remain, but the quality is reduced to an amateurish, rushed, and lazy effort beside the grand display of history.
Peyton’s work – oil on canvas, oil pastel, and sometimes pencil drawings – also includes a colourful David Bowie and a defiant-looking Liam Gallagher, as well as a reimagining of Delacroix and Flaubert, among other portraits highlighting changing interpretations of portraiture. For those interested in the merging of imperial figureheads with the modern concept of stardom, this exhibition is worth a visit.
Featured photo: detail from ‘Alizarin Kurt’ by Elizabeth Peyton, 1995, private collection. © Elizabeth Peyton
Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels is at National Portrait Gallery from 3rd October until 5th January 2020. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.