Friday, 13 February 2009

Elizabeth Peyton
September (Ben), 2001
Oil on Panel 30.8 x 23.2 cm

The Royal Academy, London
September 2002

I first came across her work at the "Galleries Show" at the Royal Academy in September 2002 and was very taken with this portrait of a lost soul.

Peyton made her name with paintings of male celebrities, on the one hand rock stars whose flames had burned too bright, and on the other those from royalty and the annals of history. The smallness of the work and the delicacy of the brushwork, despite the apparent speed of its execution, gives the painting an appropriate intimacy that suggests a close friend or lover. Yet the likeness is tinged with sadness and the idealised features of the subject hark back to her idealistic representations of doomed dandies. In this respect all of her portraits carry this melancholic lineage that although contradicted by the lightness of her painterly touch, says as much about her as it does about the subjects.

It is from her own photograph and is one of several studies. Whilst it lacks the blurry "photographic" close-up crop of many of her icon portraits, it still has a photographic signature. It is almost as though it was taken with no thought to composition, a naive "Ben with sunset" snapshot - the off centre figure losing his knee in the process. This "snapshot" impression is further reinforced by the apparent speed of the painting, capturing the fleeting posture as he raises his hand to his shoulder. In an interview with the Hayward Gallery in 2007, she states her preference for working with ‘images that are incidental and anecdotal, rather than formal – they have more information to pick and choose from when it comes to making a composition’[1].

It is the unusual framing of the figure within the portrait that drew me to this image - seated well off centre he is crowded into the bottom right hand corner of the painting. The focus is almost on the lurid sunset on the horizon and our wavering attention is matched by his disinterested air as he gazes off to the right into the unseen distance.

As with all her works it is brightly coloured using a full palette of unmixed colours, the most striking of which is the streak of cadmium red across the horizon. There are two blues, yellows, browns, pinks and greens each isolated and pure. Some small elements are almost Matisse like in their separation. The larger areas have been wiped back to give a range of tones. The flesh almost white, with colour at edges. The lips are very red. The hair is painted with thick confident brown strokes. Thin washes and allowed to run in trousers. I have seen quite a few of her works now and this is typical with thin glazed colours applied individually, giving a very intense saturated surface, the almost smooth ground allowing maximum reflected light.

The panels for her paintings are about 2cm deep and are covered with very thick layers of acrylic primer. This has been applied with a scraper of some kind (I used to use a credit card) and the thick paint runs over the edges and the ridges in the surface become an integral element of the artwork. Paint is mainly transparent and the vertical ridges can clearly be seen in the reproduction above.

Names her favourite painters ranging from Velazquez and John Singer Sargeant to Andy Wharhol and David Hockmey. I see Karen Kilimnik and Florine Stettheimer(art deco influenced modernist d1944)

[1]Elizabeth Peyton in conversation with the Hayward Gallery ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ Hayward Publications 2007 p133

©blackdog 2009


  1. There are many precise and analysing informations about the painting- I find the 'pic' interesting and touching and it reminds me of some experiences with young people - the young man looks sad, loneley, sensitive, some female, perhaps lost and abandoned- the sloping, blood-red horizon line and other bloody lines might stress this feeling- the water looks cold (blue) and icy (white), too, the black of hairs and clothing could also give such a feel of sorrow- but I know that many youngsters, not only the Gothic people, love a totally black outlook in order to signalize their protest against the establishment- but here a feel of sorrow and desolation is predominant - the bag shows a styled flower (green/pink)-textile- but is there anybody whom he could present a 'red' rose- the young boy is sitting at the edge of the pic- supposedly with the feel of being an outsider.

  2. Lovely analysis Philine, they do always say with photographs to have the subject look into the frame, not out of it as the look leads the eye away. She specialises in sad effeminate men and tends to emphasise this aspect in her portraits. I think the outsider look adds to this uncertainty and increases the sense of sorrow. The photo above is a bit misleading as the red marks around the neck are actually more of a brown shading, but the blood red horizon definitely increases the tension in the image.

  3. Yes, "effeminate men" - that is the right word- there are some other worksby EP titled "Flower Ben"- the 'depictured' Ben has also his flower- reminding of the flower people/flower power?