Sunday, 4 October 2009

Elizabeth Peyton

Jarvis, 1996
Oil on Panel 27.9 x 35.6 cm
Not Seen
27th July 2008

This painting is typical of her work during her ‘rise to fame’. She dropped the small intimate works on paper of historical figures in 1995 and focused on painting. These portraits predate the images of her friends and take the form of tributes by an adoring fan. Despite the distancing effect of working from photographs, the intimate scale, delicate brushwork and directness of touch communicate a romantic love for her subjects and the accompanying anxiety.

This portrait of the singer Jarvis Cocker is a rare composition in her work in that the subject is engaging in eye contact. Typically the skin is bleached to near white and the features are idealised with ‘Rossetti’ lips.

Her colours are clear and transparent and applied in thin loose strokes on primed board. The red-violet of the jacket is set off wonderfully by the touch of lemon yellow in the background. The New York Times critic Roberta Smith accurately describes her style as a strange blend of ‘part Abstract Expressionism, part Renaissance miniature, with a touch of Pre-Raphaelite romanticism thrown in for good measure’.

The panels for her paintings are masonite, which is only available in America (invented in 1929). It is made from wood chips steam blasted and pressed into boards without the use of glues and binders. The nearest we have is medium density fibre (mdf) board which uses formaldehyde resin as a binder. The panels 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.

In conversation with Steve Lafreniere, EP has an interesting response to his comment that there is a great deal of melancholy in her work…

“It’s not so much sentimental. It’s just that time passes. I am constantly thinking about it, and kind of obsessing about it. How things change, how I change, how there’s no stopping it. But when I’m painting, I’m very unaware. I’m not thinking about any of these things. It’s this other place. I know that sounds like mumbo-jumbo” (2)

Yes it does, but I think that despite her denial it sounds like a sentimentality for the past and that her paintings both acknowledge, but also try and arrest the march of time. The fact that she separates herself from these feelings when she paints implies that her painterly expression is stylistic or synthetic rather than emotional. In other words she uses the tropes of expressionism to evoke a reaction from the viewer rather than it being felt, say in the working of Van Gogh or Munch.

(1)Smith, Roberta Blood and Punk Royalty to Grunge Royalty NY Times 24 March 1995

(2)Lafreniere, Steve A Conversation with the Artist, Elizabeth Peyton Rizzoli International Publications 2005 p252

©blackdog 2009


  1. A very 'attractive' painting - wonderful exciting colours, "intimate scale, delicate brushwork, and directness of touch...", indeed! Your analysis is very informative, precise, and thoughtful! I have the feel the one opened eye of the lady is just hitting myself, and if I were a man, it could be the beginning of a new flirt? (with a melancholic touch in her eyes and her gesture) - Very impressive is your webjournal in progress as I today see for the first time- confusing, shocking paintings, esp. Snork (word never heard, I have to google LEO) III, 14th September 2009- a woman having been violated or having just murdered, a Medea? The shadow in the background is still threatening/menacing her so that I more fea the first situation...I hope you can sleep dealing with these cruel, sad looking imaginations! In any case you are a very creative and diligent (4 HP's!) artist!

  2. Thank you Philine - as it is actually a man, perhaps he is flirting with you! EP specialises in painting people from popular culture in a Byronesque (effeminate) way.

    The painting blog is really just to try and make me record the painful steps of experimenting with a different style. Is not going very well at the moment ;o) Snork is a made up word (from snorkel) of my daughters who saw the initial sketch for this painting 5 years ago. The original painting is here...

    in my 'normal' style.