elizabeth peyton on painting david bowie from youtube
The inimitable painter of modern heroes including Kate Moss and Kurt Cobain discusses her latest work and the problem with being called a fan.
Elizabeth Peyton's current New York show is called "SPEED POWER TIME HEART," which are the four words that appear along the screen of a certain model of treadmill.
In January of this year, several days after David Bowie's death, the artist was jogging while watching videos of the singer's TV appearances on YouTube. She took some photographs of the footage (while still in motion) and only later noticed that her images had captured the display's wording. "The machines are telling you numbers about your vital signs, and measuring your movement in space, and I just thought it was very fitting," she says, "I like taking what's already there."
The words unite a collection of eight new paintings that Peyton made this year. The works' subjects skew musical — with appearances from Bowie (based on those YouTube snaps), composer Nico Muhly, and pianist David Fray — but there are also two portraits of 17th-century idol Louis XIV. Included with the press release for the show is an extract from the Wikipedia entry on Bernini's Bust of Louis XIV. The text describes Bernini's request for 20 sittings with the Sun King in order to capture the "Truth" of his character. He asked to observe the monarch playing tennis and napping after lunch. "One must express what goes on in the heads of heroes," he is supposed to have said.
"I didn't mean for anyone to think I thought [Bernini] was me!" Peyton says. "But I did feel it was powerful, what he said about needing to take the time to be around somebody and see what they look like playing tennis and ordinary things like that. It wasn't about copying Louis XIV, it was about feeling his being."
Since her career took off in the mid-1990s, Peyton herself has been recognized for capturing just that. She has painted musicians ranging from Kurt Cobain to Kanye West, Jarvis Cocker to Justin Bieber. She's captured Chloë Sevigny and Nicole Kidman, and the zeitgeists of the eras they embody. She rose to fame with a show of works at the Chelsea Hotel sponsored by Courtney Love. But Peyton doesn't care about celebrity, or rather it's not what inspires her. Her paintings capture, in colorful heart-pounding brushstrokes, all the many feelings we project onto our heroes and imagine what they too might be feeling.
Reading about Bernini's process made me curious about your sittings. How much do you work from life and how much do you work from photographs?
I work from everything. I do feel like a painting is a transformational object. The goal is not to make something that copies anybody. It's so much more than that. There's the experience of being with the person — maybe not even painting them but just being with them. Then there are the photos, memories of the sound of their voice, those things create all these layers. Then my feelings are also going into the object, me connecting to this person, why I feel like this painting is the most important thing in the world to me at that moment. It's an odd thing that comes over you, but it definitely feels like that.
I love that Bernini apparently rearranged Louis' hair because he didn't think it flattered his forehead. Have you ever rearranged a subject's hair?
I know! But no, I have a very "come as you are" thing. I like to just see how people show up when they show up. I don't like to mess with that.
When did you begin working on the Bowie painting?
I took the YouTube photos a couple of days after he died. I was on my way to London the day after for some reason. I had the photos and I kept wanting to do something with them this year. There was a print and a woodcut that led up to this painting.
Why was that particular frame of him looking off to the side the one that you decided to paint?
I don't know off the top of my head, I feel it somewhere a lot deeper. I trust instincts like that. But I will say that one thing I noticed while watching interviews with David Bowie is how present he is, and how much is inside of him as a person. In the pictures he looks a little bit sick and tired — like he's been out doing loads of drugs — but he's still this really nice, respectful man who showed up for this interview, and he was even flirting with the interviewer a bit! He was so there, and always very conscious, even when he was totally out of his mind. So that was part of it. While I was making that painting, it also brought up a friend of mine.
Does that happen a lot, that you're painting a picture of one person and it brings up feelings about another?
It does. One time I remember very well: I was making a painting of Freud and it really became my father. It was so funny and scary, but it really was happening! The other thing I'll say about those Bowie pictures is the colors. When you re-photograph images off some crappy screen you get these colors that you wouldn't have in life. This other thing happens.
Bowie's hair in that painting has an otherworldly shine.
Oh, yes! That was the natural reflection of the [camera on the screen]. The other thing that was going on when I made that picture is that the Juno [probe] had just arrived in Jupiter's orbit. All this shitty stuff was happening in the world — the conventions were coming up, there was that looming darkness — but this seemed so hopeful. One of the NASA guys said something like, "And now everyone can witness what celestial really looks like." I just thought it was so poetic and wonderful. That reflection on Bowie's hair became Jupiter to me.
How did this collection of paintings come together? Was the high number of musicians coincidental?
Yes, but I wouldn't call it random. It was my intuition. Something that was on my mind a lot was authenticity. Since I began, that's been very important to me. And I was maybe feeling like that was really missing. I think I was going for images that I had a very strong feeling about, and I tried not to fight myself. You know, making a picture of Louis XIV is probably the wrong thing to do, but it just felt so right.
I like the Bernini quote about how he wanted to "see inside the heads of heroes." You've spoken before about being drawn to people you see as heroes.
I think about that all the time. One thing that art does so beautifully — it can happen in a song or a painting — is that it's a place to put all these feelings, and then other people can come and connect their feelings. If you put something specific in there like a person, it can make you want to be better yourself, it can help you out with how you're feeling, and help you articulate that. I think all those things are so positive. Beauty can make you want to be better, to aspire to something.
You've painted so many musicians, and the word "fan" often comes up when people discuss your work. How do you feel about that word?
I think that's often something that's applied to women. But portraiture is an ancient thing. People have made pictures of people for thousands of years. There's just something about the human face and what it depicts. On a neurological level, it's about mirroring; when you see another person's face it makes you feel things. An icon is real, it becomes a location of all these feelings and experiences of being human. There's nothing embarrassing about saying someone's a hero. I don't understand that. It's very hard to be a musician. It takes a lot of sacrifice, and it's very lonely. That's something I thought about with Louis XIV while making those paintings — how lonely he must have been.
That idea of being a "fangirl" sometimes seems like an effort to belittle female artists.
Since I was younger, that's what everyone's been saying. I just think that's too bad for them. There's nothing wrong with being a fan. People have been making pictures forever of what they consider to be great. Yes, it could be a picture of a pope, but it could also be a painting of a flower. So then what? Am I a fan of flowers? Well go ahead, call me a fan of flowers, I am! It's ridiculous. The thing I'm interested in is just so much bigger than that stuff. The moment when I was coming up coincided with a time in culture when people were so obsessed with celebrities and being near them, or even knowing someone who knew them. But I get inspired to paint a picture of someone because of what they're doing, what they make.
Has the gloom of this year prompted you to paint differently or to paint anyone in particular?
It's not quite that specific for me. It just makes me want to do it more. I want to make more pictures of flowers. I'm not saying that in a cheeky way. But you have to do anything that you find meaningful and honest, along with things like protesting which are very real. You have to do something authentic, where the truth means something, before it's all lost. [This year] has inspired me as an artist to make more.
You once said, "I know that three-quarters of what I make is horrible," which is very reassuring. How do you know when something you've made is good?
It's a really painful part of art-making. You have to let the bad stuff happen or the good stuff doesn't come. You have to be able to live with making mistakes. When it's right, I just feel it in my hand. I feel it when the mark goes down. I can't tell you what it is, but I know when it's wrong, and I know when it's right!
"SPEED POWER TIME HEART" is on show at Gladstone 64 in New York through December 21.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Images courtesy Gladstone 64