The Elizabeth Peyton exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum sets out to prove that Ms. Peyton, renowned for her endearing, colorful little paintings of fellow artists, friends and 1980s pop icons, is more than just a jolly social portraitist. As evidence, the show offers the first display of her photographic work, or more precisely, around 50 of the casual snapshot photographs from which she makes her painted portraits.
There is scant difference between these photographs and Ms. Peyton’s paintings, at least in the early years of her career, suggesting that the artist did little more than enlarge and copy cropped sections of the photographic images. Nor is there any profundity or perversity to the photographs themselves. Meanwhile, none of the qualities one would normally associate with conventional portraiture — beauty, insight or charm — is present, and most of the figures are stiff and lifeless, like animals in car headlights. Some subjects even have red eyes from the flash.
It is, strange to say, the somewhat adolescent overtones of Ms. Peyton’s photographic project as a whole that engage us most. Looking at these photographs I was reminded of hanging out at bars and going on road trips with my friends during college. Difficult to warm to formally, these photographs nevertheless have the charismatic waywardness of a beguiling amateur.
Before switching to a digital camera in 2002, Ms. Peyton shot her subjects with either a standard 35-millimeter or a Polaroid camera — with little attention to composition or lighting. Several of them are blurred or slightly out of focus and look as if they were printed at the local pharmacy.
Occasionally these casual snapshots are of famous people or well-known denizens of the art world, including the artists Franz Ackermann, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Maurizio Cattelan, Olafur Eliasson and Matthew Barney. There are also photographs of fashion designers, actors, musicians and assorted social and art world flotsam and jetsam.
People like to look at images of famous people, no matter how blurry or poorly constructed. This is how paparazzi survive. However, most of the people in these images are not all that famous and are captured doing nothing in particular, hence the infuriating sense one has in this show of time being wasted — by the viewer as well as the subject.
As I roamed the exhibit, I wondered what this collection of photographs was doing in an art gallery. While I can appreciate the enthusiasm on the part of the curator, Richard Klein, to show the way in which photography has been an important part of Ms. Peyton’s painting practice since the beginning, I kept coming back to a fundamental question: are the images themselves worthy of display?
Some are. Many are not.
As an artist, Ms. Peyton has enjoyed an impressively varied existence, moving from city to city (image captions identify dozens of locations worldwide) as opportunities for shows arose. In each place she would record her social circle, somewhat in the manner of keeping a diary. Images of scruffy-looking, pale-faced young men are popular.
Certain things also tend to repeat. Tony Just, the artist, is the subject of several photographs shot in different places at different times. The same goes for a youth identified only as Ben. Ms. Peyton’s photograph of Ben asleep on a train between Hamburg and Berlin is one of the show’s more memorable images (or has the subject’s name brought me back to my youth again?).
The photograph of Ben in the railway car was taken in 2001 and is slightly different in tone from the earlier works in the show, which date from the mid-1990s. The earlier photographs seem more accidental, while the later photographs tend to be much more conscious and even planned. Ms. Peyton is starting to see the photographs less as studies for paintings than as images in their own right.
This is good news for anyone interested in Ms. Peyton’s career as a portrait photographer — she is now getting the hang of it. Take, for instance, “Adi” (2004), a shot of a woman posing at a breakfast table in some anonymous apartment. The scene is clearly set up, from the artfully arranged furnishings to the woman’s contrived pose: she gazes heroically off into the distance.
But no matter how much Ms. Peyton’s photographs have improved, my advice to her is to stick to what she knows. Photographs may be important to her painting process, but a show like this does little to enhance her hard-won reputation.
“Elizabeth Peyton: Portrait of an Artist,” Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn., through 16/11/08 Information: (203) 438-4519 or www.aldrichart.org.
Images and text by The New York Times, USA