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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

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Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Elizabeth Peyton, 2000

WITH ROB PRUITT AND STEVE LAFRENIERE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LEETA HARDING

In the summer of '93 at the Venice Biennale, you could feel that things were about to change. The glitz and extravagance were beginning to fade — bye-bye Koons and black Armanis. In retrospect, we were bearing witness to a new attitude in art-making —cynicism-free, more personal, even kind. Or at least that's what people were saying at the nightly parties in the grand palazzos.

I saw it first and felt it strongest there the afternoon I met Elizabeth Peyton. Fresh as a breeze, she was wearing a baby blue gingham shirt with right-out-of-the-pack creases. I already knew that she was married to the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, and that she'd made drawings and paintings of Napoleon, Ludwig II, and British royals, rockers, and poets. But as I talked with this person that I just knew was going to be a friend, my mind wandered, and I found myself mesmerized by her effervescence and beauty. It felt like falling in love. That afternoon, I figured out something about her, and about how she's able to choose her subjects —all these beauties involved in personal pursuits of humanity and art —and render them with style and grace. Simply put, it takes one to know one.

Steve Lafreniere and I spoke with Elizabeth recently in her East Village apartment, amid scads of CDs, books, and issues of Hello! magazine.

ROB: How do you feel about spending your life as an artist? Do you ever wish you were a filmmaker or a pop star?
ELIZABETH: No, not a pop star. In kind of low moments I wish I was a photographer. Like maybe life would be easier.
ROB: I guess at the crux of my question is, art's such a private, secret world. It doesn't matter to the rest of the universe.
ELIZABETH: But I love that about it. It was actually my friend Craig who reminded me of it. At the point I met him I was really into music, and feeling frustrated with art —that you couldn't have that immediate thing. And I just felt that art was really failing and not communicating.
ROB: I feel like, what are we doing wrong? People care more about the world of golf than what we're doing.
ELIZABETH: Craig reminded me that it's a strange, obscure thing, but it lasts.
ROB: I used to think that way more, before our culture became electronic. Now I feel like all the idiosyncratic aspects of society are documented in global electronic communication, and that our job isn't as important anymore.
ELIZABETH: We've had a glimmer of this talk before. Because I don't think it's about your time. I think at any given moment there's not so much great art, and that's why it's so amazing and totally magic when it works, and you feel it's your time. It communicates to you, and it's really smart, and every other transcendental thing you'd want it to be.
ROB: Right.
ELIZABETH: When you're living in your own time you don't get that remove the way you do with history. With music it's a lot easier.
ROB: So you really have a lot of hope for the idea of something going on and affecting people of a later era the way that we've been affected and spoken to by people from one hundred years ago.
ELIZABETH: That's what oil paint's about. You know it'll last forever.
ROB: That thought is sort of terrifying.
ELIZABETH: But it's great when you forget about it.
STEVE: I just saw this piece in Italian Vogue about Maurizio Cattelan's "biennial" in St. Kitts. It was so funny, because I turned the page and there were these pictures of you and Tony Just swimming in the sea. Until you got down there, did you realize it was one of Maurizio's conceptual pranks?
ELIZABETH: [laughs] Gee, I wouldn't say we really didn't know why we were there.
STEVE: My understanding is that most people were successfully persuaded that there was an art biennial on this tiny Caribbean island.
ELIZABETH: Well, the press release was made up of parts of all the other biennials' press releases. The scary thing is that it made a lot of sense. But he told the artists, "Come for ten days and do whatever you want." I'd never met Pipilotti Rist or Vanessa Beecroft, so it was great. And I think for Maurizio it wasn't meant as an exploitative thing. Somewhere he really thought, wouldn't it be interesting to get all these people together, all these supposedly hot artists and put them in one place to see what happens. I also think he wanted to get a photograph.
STEVE: It sounds a little like a Fassbinder plot —everybody trapped in some hotel in Darmstadt.
ELIZABETH: But everyone was making art all the time, and making things for each other. There were all these drawings, all these photographs and videotapes. And then there was a hurricane, and that's when the biennial became The Biennial.
ROB: That makes it like a play, in a way. A good storm always makes things more theatrical.
ELIZABETH: It got pretty abstract, especially the humor. It was like being on acid. People were doing waves at the dinner table. Tony and I spent most of the time in our room, drawing and listening to music and just sort of staring at each other. And then we threw a big party. We threw the American Pavilion party.
ROB: It sounds like the whole trip was made up of lots of guilty pleasures. What kind do you indulge in your everyday life?
ELIZABETH: Oh, there are so many, but I have to say lately one of my favorite things is to sleep through the day. Because as soon as the sun goes down, you're away from the guilt of productivity. That's when you can really get stuff done. I don't like the pressure of sunny, happy days. Another favorite thing is being home and listening to loud music. I've been singing lately too, which I never used to do. But I've been thinking a lot about expression and voice, and I wonder if I have one.
STEVE: What do you find so interesting in a photo of someone that makes you want to have that moment? That there's a certain candidness?
ELIZABETH: That doesn't matter so much. I think the thing for me is just that the person's not there. At some point the photo's got to get lost.
STEVE: The series of Tony asleep is remarkable. It's like romantic verité.
ELIZABETH: Well, Tony was the first person who let me look at him that way and not feel violated or think it strange. He just let it happen. It is a little weird, because I always feel like I'm getting so much.
STEVE: Strictly speaking, would you consider yourself a portraitist?
ELIZABETH: When cab drivers ask me what I do, I say, "I paint people." But then I always want to qualify it a little bit. I don't mind the portraiture thing, but I can't paint just anybody. I wish I had that skill, but I don't.
ROB: When was the first time you painted Napoleon?
ELIZABETH: When I was really young, after this bad summer where I never went out. I read his biography and it somehow made sense of the whole world, that this one person changed everything. Let's make roads! Let's everyone go to school! [laughs] Plus he was gorgeous and had star quality.
ROB: There's the cliché about all portraits being self-portraits.
ELIZABETH: I don't know. It's like something I want to see in the world, and then I see it exists in another person. I get so excited that it actually is there. I don't know if it's self-identification as much as that's what I want every second to be like. When I was really young and just couldn't relate at all, and I was reading nineteenth-century literature —that was my world. They were my best friends. And then, Kurt. That was the first time I ever painted an American from roughly my own time. It was such a revelation —it's here, that thing I've been loving.
ROB: And very personally. Not in a detached, Warholian way.
ELIZABETH: No, no distance at all. As in, this is what I want to live for. In a way, you can be much more intimate with people you don't know. But the fan thing conjures up that something's missing, that there's an inadequacy.
STEVE: But pop music stars are kind of more like friends than other celebrities.
ROB: Yeah, and one thing about pop music is that you can drag it back to the nest and be alone with it.
ELIZABETH: It's like John Lennon, you hear his breath. And you can have it. And if you really love that person, then you take them into your life and you make it better with them. In a different way Kurt Cobain is a good example. It was just his own fucked up life, but how many millions of people related to it? It's a beautiful thing when a collapse occurs between our own personal needs and what's in the air.
STEVE: Well, that's what first drew me to your work. The clarity with which you present those sorts of emotions. And it's so simple.
ROB: It's all about these strokes, and you can look into the painting and see that they haven't been muddled with. They're really assured and there. I can never look at any of your paintings and see an area that even looks like you tried to correct something.
ELIZABETH: But that's the thing —it's all mistakes in a way. The overall effect just works sometimes.
ROB: I feel like you can't really be pinned down. On the one hand you celebrate figures like Kurt Cobain, who would seem to have been his own invention. But then you also paint English royals, like Prince Harry …
ELIZABETH: The royals can be idiots, and I don't know about all of them. But in particular, Elizabeth rose to the occasion of her life. Kurt Cobain could have just been a drug addict. But he wanted to make more, and he left it for us. It's actually all the same, they're not unrelated at all. One of my favorite things about Princess Diana is that her grandmother was Barbara Cartland. So she grew up reading her romance novels, totally believing in love and princes. And then she had to rise above the tragedy of going into the royal family actually believing in it. She was nineteen —she didn't understand that it was a transaction. It was because she really believed in love that everything went wrong.
ROB: What do you think of the conspiracy theory? Can you imagine Charles and Elizabeth saying, "Okay, let's get a hit man …"
ELIZABETH: And off her? It all does seem a bit weird. Like why would all your security people be on Prozac and drinking so much? [laughs]
STEVE: Did you get a lot of flack about your work in the beginning?
ELIZABETH: In the early '90s it was like, "You're a painter? Eeeyuuch!" When I went to Europe for the first time, it was with Rirkrit for a show he was having. People would say to me, "And what do you do?" And I'd say, "I make paintings." "What kind of paintings?" "Of people." "Like who?" "Um, Napoleon and King Ludwig." And they'd say [making a face], "Oh. How interesting." Or people are always thinking that it's about cute people. There are millions of cute people in the world, and very few that are beautiful.
STEVE: Re-staging beauty does seem key to what you're doing. Bringing it from the shadows.
ELIZABETH: It's almost a nineteenth-century idea that what's on the inside appears on the outside. Balzac was into the curve of your nose or mouth expressing some kind of inner quality, that it could be read on your face.
ROB: Warhol thought of beauty as a talent.
ELIZABETH: I think for him that was almost enough. Wilde, for the first part of his life, was almost shallow about it. Beauty for beauty's sake — "Yeah, let's have more of it." Later it seems he realized that it's at a cost. I like the idea of beauty coming from lots of things and that it's not easy to get there. Kind of what religion was doing at one time. This thing that everybody needs to find their way with. To believe in it, that it's possible.
STEVE: Modernism had a beauty problem, and I think it's carried through to whatever era we're in now —this thing an artist is expected to work around.
ELIZABETH: It's like they think it's their slutty side. Especially when we were coming in, in the '80s. It was such a no-no to have that.
ROB: What's your relationship to the materials? Do you ever wish that you didn't have to use brushes and paint?
ELIZABETH: No. But I never knew how picky I was about them until I started teaching, and I saw how ill-informed my students were about materials. Because if you have a taste for a softness in the brush or a quality of color in the paint, it all helps. I really like all those things, and I never thought I did. I guess I never thought of myself as a painter, that it was my natural inclination.
STEVE: That's so interesting. You seem more aligned with "born" painters, like David Hockney.
ELIZABETH: [smiles] I love Hockney.
STEVE: I wanted to ask you about that connection. He's gone so out of style. But I think in the end he's going to win.
ROB: Oh, I do too. But I only see one-quarter of the work as being interesting, and the rest being kind of terrible. I'm wondering if you feel the same way, Elizabeth. And if you do, what do you do with the three-quarters that you don't like?
ELIZABETH: It makes me love him more. I know that three-quarters of what I make is horrible. You have to allow him all that room, just because he's so fascinated and curious. It leads him in all these directions, and maybe they're not all so great. I have faith in him enough that I don't really care. He can make loads of dross, but at least he's trying.
ROB: I'd like to see a big show of his work, curated by you. A fan with a really idiosyncratic perspective.
[Elizabeth gets a Hockney book from the next room.]
ELIZABETH: One of the things I like about him is that he was such an anti-modernist. In the '70s he was a party of one —a humanist. "I want to talk about people, relate to people."
ROB: But to me, he's thoroughly modern. Because he's from dreary, foggy London, and he's assigned himself to an image world that's something other than his own ...
STEVE: Like sunny Hollywood.
ROB: Have you ever thought of directing music videos?
ELIZABETH: It'd depend on the group. I'd have to love them. But you know, it's hard working with other people.
ROB: Believe me, I know. What about films?
ELIZABETH: [pause] One idea I've had … it would be shot in Potsdam, at Frederick the Great's Sans Souci. One of the people who works in his house is this beautiful young man. And Frederick takes him on as his lover, and they're really in love. I wanted to make a movie about that. And I always think that somebody should make a contemporary version of Lost Illusions, sort of like Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons 1960. It's such a good story for now. But I could never deal with the big monster you have to deal with to make films.
ROB: I'd like to make films, but I get the feeling I wouldn't be able to communicate well with a big crew. But maybe you could get sort of lost and not be such a big voice —just leave Post-its all over the set with instructions.
STEVE: Elizabeth, you mentioned earlier that sometimes you think you'd like to be a photographer. I wonder how different those pictures would be than what you're doing now?
ELIZABETH: When I was little, I had tons of photos on my walls. But I never thought of them as photos —they were just faces. I never thought about the difference. Everything with the face is so fast, and it just disappears. Photos really can get that. In your mind, your memory can get it, but it's different.
STEVE: You keep returning to this idea of time being so fleeting.
ELIZABETH: I just think it's all in people's faces. They really are history. And it passes and they change, and that's it.
STEVE: Now you're concentrating on these portraits of friends. Doesn't familiarity with a person hinder actually seeing them?
ELIZABETH: No, I think it kind of gets easier, because there's more in your head. You can feel everything more than you need to see it. With photographs you notice that you don't even see people sometimes. There's so much else going on that you don't really know what they look like. But familiarity is the best for me, actually knowing them. And a lot of times people will say, "These men don't look like that. There's no way they have red lips like that, and such skin." But they do.

 





© Leeta Harding

 


© Leeta Harding

 



© Leeta Harding

© Leeta Harding
 
Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller