True Brits

A young New York painter looks like becoming “the first artist of Britpop”. Jon Savage on how Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits of Jarvis, Liam and Noel tell us more about the sexual ambiguity of rock icons than a photograph ever could

IF CONTEMPORARY celebrity culture is the modern Olympus, pop is the youth wing. It is in the nature of icons that they are never static; that, like standard texts, they are redefined by each successive generation or micro-generation. Much of this is to do with the complex set of circumstances that turn a human being into an icon — a state that holds within itself something of the godlike, or at least the symbolic. This is different to either fame (earned) or celebrity (unearned notoriety): it has to do both with achievement — capturing the national or global imagination through a cultural product — and the way in which individual characteristics and/or life stories tap into the reservoir of archetypes.

“What’s so great about these people is that, with what they do, they transcend what they are and where they’re from. And part of that is not just being a man or a woman. They’re bigger than that. It seems that a guy like Liam Gallagher — or anyone from Oasis — could just as well be down the pub. So what made him do what he did? People think that he seems so stupid, yet you know that he really believes in the beauty of what he’s doing.”

Elizabeth Peyton is a dyed-blonde, androgynous 30 year old from the east coast of America, who paints medium-size portraits — usually around 15ft x 20ft — in oils and ink. Nothing extraordinary so far, until you notice her subjects: close friends in the art world, fantastic historical figures like Beethoven, Louis XIV, Queen Elizabeth I, Ludwig II, and modern pop stars. Not just any old stars, but a very specific repertoire: Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Evan Dando, Jarvis Cocker, Liam Gallagher — iconic avatars of white bohemia, from punk to Britpop.

It would be tempting to call Peyton the first artist of Britpop: she works fast, often using photographs from the weekly British music press, which tends to report every Oasis/Pulp move as it happens. Her portraits are almost instantaneous abstractions from a heavily documented culture: here is imperial Liam — a barely blemished image of male beauty on the point of spoiling; there is Jarvis facing the press after his arrest for upstaging Michael Jackson at this year’s Brits — waspish, world weary, the Oscar Wilde who did not succumb.

Hyper-contemporary, almost kitsch, Peyton’s pictures are mediated, and thus media friendly, as her burgeoning US, UK and European exhibits and clippings attest. They have the perfect ratio for magazine and newspaper reproduction, and they look good in the flesh. Peyton is hot, but there’s more to it than that: as ever in pop, the simple things you see are all complicated. If you think of her as a Britpop painter; there’s a lot that she leaves out — no pix of Blur, Shed Seven or Ocean Colour Scene here. Why not? Because they’re not interesting: they sell records, but they don’t resonate. Peyton has a perfect eye for the right icon and the key selection from within a blizzard of images.

This places her in a curious position in her home country: although the UK is familiar with a pop-saturated mass media, the American experience is so different that her work stands almost as a radical manifesto. “British pop culture is much more acute,” she says. “The personalities are allowed to be a little more eccentric, a bit more who they are — even though it’s marketed all the same. The British understanding of pop is very different from the US: Americans don’t value it as much as the British do. The real surprise from the Nirvana Unplugged taping was how good the songs were, and how much they listened to Abba, the Beatles and David Bowie: you’re hardly allowed to be pop in the US.”

“We have this whole Nine Inch Nails thing here, where you have to be industrial, avant-garde and obscure. It’s just so stupid. Singers like Evan Dando and Kurt Cobain are very very pop for America, which is why no one knows what to do with Evan Dando now. Selling them is hard because they’re too unmanly for American culture. American pop is not put out to teenagers: all the fanzines and all the alternative people, they don’t know that it’s for them, too. There are no US teenage pop stars: nobody you’d chase down the street.”

Although Peyton disclaims gender specificity, her work can be seen as a distinctive, definitely feminine response to pop culture. This is born out of her experience: “When I was eight years old, I was obsessed with Shaun Cassidy. My sister was older than me: she moved to New York and she would bring home records by the Clash. There was nothing else like that in Connecticut. Hearing those records, I felt like I wasn’t such a freak, that there was a bigger world than Connecticut, where I was going crazy — just getting weird internalised obsessive behaviour, taking drugs. There was a whole other world out there that I could look up to, and that made a lot of sense.”

From Connecticut, Peyton went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she still lives and works in a studio on Tompkins Square Park. Starting with historical subjects, Peyton moved into pop during 1993 with portraits of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. “I’m never after people just because they’re pretty,” she says. “If you look at John Lydon when he was a teenager, and then the year he started writing, suddenly he was so beautiful. Maybe it was drugs and he was getting that almost dead, unearthly look, but I think it was also what he was doing and what was going through him that made him suddenly beautiful. He reminded me of Napoleon: that this boy writing ‘God Save The Queen’ in his kitchen was mimicking his social context in such a way that it was the most powerful thing at that moment.”

The Sid and John pictures present these familiar icons, not as static rock gods, but sensitive changelings. This accords with my own experience of punk picture research: in going through thousands of photos from 1976 and 1977, I found that there was only one group who made the changes, who almost always looked good: the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten in particular was in constant motion: one day an Irish-English scruff from Finsbury Park, the next an electronic icon — at once proud, obnoxious, imperial, snivelling, defensive, bored and ecstatic. He’d transcended his circumstance to become a figure from the national subconscious, twinned with Queen Elizabeth in the eyes of the world’s media, who had gathered for the jubilee celebrations in spring/summer 1977.

Peyton is nothing if not obsessive, returning to the same subject again and again to the point where the pictures become a personal cosmology. As she says: “The thing in common with the people I paint is that they’ve fulfilled their destiny. It’s not so much that they went all the way, more because there’s something in them as people that leads them towards that: they can’t not do it. I really want the people I paint to be heroes. I was thinking recently about how heroic John Lydon was: that first 1976 interview of his in the music press, where he turns round and says, ‘I HATE hippies’. That was incredible. What Jarvis Cocker did with Michael Jackson was the most heroic act I’ve seen recently: standing up to people, and saying what he felt. That’s so rare. It’s like the Sex Pistols and the Queen.”

After a while, her subjects interconnect: you can see the similarities between Johnny Rotten and Liam Gallagher, between Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain. In many ways, they are branches of the same tree. “There are so many layers of time running through them,” she says; “They have their own personal relationship to what they do, then they have their historical moment and then they relate to each other. Last year, I did a really dreamy picture of Kurt Cobain. I didn’t have a picture for it, I just read about Kurt reading about the Sex Pistols in Creem magazine, over and over, and he couldn’t find the record, so he was just imagining what they were like. And thinking, ‘Wow, there really is life out there,’ and it gave him hope.”

Although painterly in a traditional sense, her work is reminiscent of those 1960s fan magazine competitions: young women around the world sending in their drawings of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Lennon — the votive, often overlooked feminine response to pop. As part of this idealisation, Peyton imposes a curiously uniform look on her pantheon: luxuriant hair, button eyes, exotic clothing, lips as shiny red as those that have just been kissed. As she says: “There’s something about a particular kind of male sexuality that has always appealed to me: straight boys who aren’t afraid of being feminine, who aren’t afraid to be very open about the whole thing.”

These paintings restate the primacy of androgyny in pop, currently derided in the age of the bloke. Consider the petty machismo of Chris Evans, or the fear enshrined by Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills in ‘Hey Dude’: “You treat me like a woman but I feel like a man.” This hysterical denial of masculine femininity saturates Western culture. But as Peyton’s picture of Brian Epstein attests, with his crouching posture and bleeding heart, pop is one of the only safe havens for those of nonmainstream sexuality and gender: Men have to be feminised because purchasing power in the music industry is still located in young women. The androgyny that you can see in Liam Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker and Johnny Rotten is also, according to anthropology, one of the hallmarks of the shaman: the performer healing through his own sickness.

At present, the politics of pop are, as in the wider culture, the politics of gender. Without any intention save a clear eye, Peyton’s pictures lob a grenade into the carefully patrolled, white world of Britpop: that, Jarvis apart, most defended, nostalgic and restricted of movements. They catch both pop’s rising tide — a return to androgyny as mass market machismo plays itself out — and its secret desires: in her pictures of Liam kissing Noel, or John smiling at Sid, Peyton is careful to emphasise male tenderness, beauty, bonding, femininity. These qualities are desired not only by the ardent fan but also, secretly, by the protagonists themselves — sick of an archaic gender system that requires men to be tough, peer-pressured, unfeeling. It’s my experience of Oasis that their persona masks vulnerability and intelligence, that women find them attractive as well as men, and that Liam can resemble nobody so much as the 1966 John Lennon: well ‘ard on the outside, but confused, druggy and beautiful in his granny glasses and bangs.

Like any true pop obsessive, Peyton understands its ability to constantly throw up the right iconic figures for the moment, whether in present or past time: “I’m doing a lot of Evan Dando at the moment,” she says, “Especially after his cover of ‘Live Forever’. I’m also looking at Beck and Brian Epstein right now.

“And I saw Jarvis yesterday, at the Korean market on my corner. He was with a friend: he looked like he’d slept in his clothes for four days. He was buying ice cream: it looked like he was going back to bed to watch TV. I didn’t go and say hello because I thought how happy he must be to walk around New York and not be hassled: I just didn’t want to be another freak. But I’m doing a picture of that moment right now: I’m trying to remember what he was wearing.” 

With thanks to Frieze magazine.

© Jon SavageThe Guardian, 20 December 1996

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