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Elizabeth Peyton's Snapshot Romanticism: New Work at GBE (A Review)

"Snapshot romanticism" may seem like an oxymoron, but it was the first phrase that fired in my brain while thinking of Elizabeth Peyton's small paintings and drawings currently on exhibit at Gavin Brown's Enterprise on Greenwich St. Her use of photographic sources, especially the snapshot genre, with its qualities of chance and candid gesture, and her thought-out brush strokes, belying the choices of a careful painter, combine to create intriguing small portraits. They all pack a lot of punch for their size.

I remember seeing one of Peyton's portraits in MoMA just after the museum reopened and thinking how well she held her own in a room full of super-sized art. I think a big Andreas Gursky photo was nearby. At the GBE gallery, the paintings and drawings are more in competition with themselves, with most holding up under scrutiny. One of the largest paintings here, titled "The Age of Innocence," at 14 1/4 x 10 inches, an oil on board, revels in the beautiful kissing faces of Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis, the stars of the 1993 film by Martin Scorsese. Known for her celebrity portraits, Peyton revels in the beautiful.

Other recognizable figures include a stunning monochromatic portrait of Alice Neel, a sepia-toned painting of the handsome face of Diaghilev, a painting of the poet and artist John Giorno in his study, and a pastel and pencil drawing of Bob Dylan. In another work, Peyton paints a still life featuring flowers, the mythological figure of Actaeon (a hunter that Artemis turns into a stag after she catches him looking at her naked), and a couple of stacked books, one on Dylan, the other Truffaut. Isn't it romantic?

Without pop and myth references, the portraits of individual friends we may not know, such as the ones of Darren, Joe, Matthew and Pati, invite more interest and attention, as if we were meeting someone for the first time. We can look at the blue denim jackets, indigo jeans, a floral print sofa, and in the case of Matthew, his intense blue eyes. I once read that Peyton has a hard time parting with her paintings, and while separation anxiety is not unusual with artists, I can see that with these more intimate paintings, it would be hard to let them go.

Peyton demonstrates she knows the different rules for painting and drawing as opposed to photography. With her paintings, applied on top of copious amounts of dripping gesso that spread beyond the underlying frame, she shows off her strokes, often committed in transparent colorful washes with careful touches of solid color. With her drawings, she's economical in line. Of these works at GBE that I liked best is a painting of hurried pedestrians at an intersection on W. 11th. near Greenwich St. In the middle is the mid-century modern Curran/O'Toole building, a white structure with scalloped overhangs, or portholes, that's currently at risk of demolition. For 9 x 6 inches, she creates an enormous amount of visual interest with the "portrait" of this building. The bottom line might be, however, that the medium is the message. Friends and buildings can come and go. Oil paint lasts forever.

Image: Gallery, 620 Greenwich Street. "Elizabeth Peyton," through May 17, 2008. Gavin Brown's Enterprise.

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