Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits of rock stars

    Rarely have I been as flummoxed by a show as I was by Elizabeth Peyton’s long array of tiny pictures of pop stars. No, that’s not fair. She doesn’t just do pop stars. She does footballers too, English princes, celebrity actors and fey young men with their tops off. Anyone who believes that looking good in photographs involves sucking in their cheeks and refusing to smile has a chance of making it into one of her pictures.

    Peyton is, of course, from New York, where history is the opposite of herstory, and where knowing a lot about a guy called Ed counts as education. So we have no right to expect any obvious signs of learning, wisdom or depth from her art. Yet even by the standards of New York, surely this endless parade of Liams from Oasis, and Kurts and Sids and Petes, constitutes a tragic abnegation of an artist’s responsibilities to the civilisation process?

    Hang on, though. Maybe we should see these skinny pictures of skinny pop stars as poignant portrayals of the princes of our times, lachrymose limnings of the Lancelots of the Lower East Side, a Manhattan mythology devoted to the nearest thing in our culture to a tragic hero?

    Hmmm. Then again, maybe not. Maybe all she really is is a 14-year-old girl who has never grown out of her fixation with the faces on her bedroom wall. Flummox, flummox, flummox.

    The Whitechapel Gallery is looking very impressive just now. The recent renovation that doubled the exhibition space has also doubled the buzz about the place. It’s now crowded, zippy and young, where previously it was empty, old-fashioned and venerable.

    Having elbowed the sad old ICA out of the way as the home of chic avant-gardism in London, the Whitechapel has a duty to its under-28s to keep itself fresh and fashionable. And even a Rip Van Winkle like me can see immediately that Peyton’s hollow-cheeked Hamlets are prisoners of the dark urban tristesse that afflicts the Sex and the City generation. It’s the melancholy of not getting a Valentine’s card on the appointed day, or of hanging nightly on the telephone waiting for Him to call. Most of us learn to cope with it by the time we get to 22. Peyton, who is 44, has not.

    Tiny as they are, though, these morose fan pics do indeed drench you in a tangible sense of yearning. And because few arrows in the modern man’s love-quiver are quite as effective as the arrow of vulnerability, I understand fully why a wasted idiot such as Pete Doherty, whom Peyton paints as a dreamy Saint Sebastian, staring up at the clouds, might impress a certain kind of woman with his pathetic line in tottering poetic loserhood. You just want to wipe the dribble off his chin, don’t you, and clutch him to your bosom? It’s a baby thing, right? So the big question remains: is this deep art about superficial people, or is it merely superficial art? Flummox, flummox, flummox.

    To make everything worse, the show does the thinking man no favours by eradicating all traces of helpful chronology from its route and coming at you from all over the place. It actually covers Peyton’s output from 1991 to the present, but everything here has been jumbled up, so all sense of her development has been lost.

    The catalogue, though, which is chronological, reveals that her first pictures were actually wispy drawings of European royalty. A slight charcoal sketch, done in 1993, but clearly based on a 1950s photo, shows our own Princess Elizabeth delivering her first radio broadcast, so pertly, so prettily. There’s a picture of Ludwig of Bavaria “Caressing the Bust of Marie Antoinette”. And of the widowed Queen Victoria looking wistfully up at Winter halter’s celebrated family portrait of her with her beloved Albert and their children.

    So, we are clearly in the presence of a major-league escapist. Peyton may have been living in the land of George Bush the First (all this starts in 1991, remember), but she is dreaming, somewhat Barbie-ishly, of the loves and losses among the faraway kings, queens and Prince Charmings of the fabled kingdom across the sea, otherwise known as Europe.

    Peyton’s royalty pics make it easier to see other things as well. In an important sense, her paintings of pop stars are the successors to her drawings of doomed princes and trapped princesses. Not merely because all of them are recorded in a pictorial style that feels significantly indebted to the Mills and Boon cover. More important than that, most of her art appears to portray fated youths trapped in a story line outside of their control. In the cases of the monarchs, their destiny is never to be free as a bird (see “Prince Harry’s First Day at Eton”). In the case of the skinny pop stars, their destiny is to wake up dead in a pool of vomit, or to blow out their own brains with a shotgun (see “Sid and His Mum”).

    The most popular tragiheroes in this parade of skinny glumsters are Cobain and Vicious, whom she shows and reshows in a continuing set of pictorial returns that add up to a haunting.