With Britpop nostalgia reaching a hysterical clamour – Blur at Hyde Park, Oasis at Wembley Stadium, Jarvis Cocker on ‘Question Time’ – it’s no surprise that the Whitechapel Gallery have chosen to revisit the work of Elizabeth Peyton, the New York-based artist best known for her oil paintings of mid-90s indie luminaries such as Oasis and Jarvis Cocker.
Elizabeth Peyton, ‘Jarvis And Liam Smoking’, 1997. Pic: Krause Johansen/Sadie Coles HQ/Gavin Brown
Peyton has been described as Britpop’s own Andy Warhol, an energetic, day-glo chronicler of the scene’s dizzying peak. In truth, her work is far more naunced than that. Her indie ‘icons’ – many of them sketched from the pages of NME – could be unutterably sad: a procession of blank and elongated faces, coated with a gauzy, incorporeal shimmer, as though glimpsed through a rain-streaked suburban window.
One image, in particular, of Liam Gallagher, looks nothing like the pimp-rolling singer of ‘Roll With It’. Mediated through Peyton’s alienating prism, he looks haunted and whey-faced, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, a wild and emaciated figure, bleached of vitality.
Elizabeth Peyton, ‘Liam Gallagher’, 1996. Pic: Krause Johansen/Sadie Coles HQ/Gavin Brown
Indeed, one strength of Peyton’s work is that it rescues these well-worn pop-culture images from the realm of deadening cliche, quarrying the turbulence beneath the supposed ‘triumphalism’ of Britpop, and prefiguring the painful hangover to come.
But I think there’s something more profound going on. In presenting these music stars as ultimately distant and unknowable, Peyton captures the gnawing sadness and profound loneliness of the obsessive music fan.
Rock photography radiates glamour, the thrill of being behind the velvet rope. You’re there, with the photographer, on the tourbus, in the hotel bar, hanging with the band.
A painting, on the other hand – especially one as hazily indistinct as Peyton’s – is different. It is a solitary endeavour, produced in a bedroom or studio, far way from the sweat and feedback of a live show. In that sense, Peyton is the patron saint of every teenage obsessive who’s ever spent a melancholy Friday night coating their bedroom walls with posters of their idols.
There’s a deeper underlying sadness too. Most of Peyton’s Britpop images were painted in 1996, at the height of the indie boom – pre ‘Be Here Now’, pre-Noel at Downing Street, pre-‘Death Of A Party’. It must have seemed incredibly exciting, a world about to be remade.
We, of course, know what happened next. Today, Britpop represents Union Jack guitars, Toploader on TFI Friday, a sucking quicksand of grindingly pedestrian bloke-rock.
All of which amplifies the forlorn, preserved-in-amber nature of Peyton’s paintings. Her pictures capture a thrilling-yet-ephemeral cultural moment, one that’s all the more poignant since – for all our nostalgic desire to repeat the revisit the past – it can never be repeated.
‘Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 20 September