October 10th, 2008


Peyton Place or the altermodern?

I'm pretty busy preparing my AA talk on The Ideology of the Iconic just now, so everything I see becomes grist to my "so tired of pop culture and high culture being mixed up" mill. This video report by James Kalm of the Elizabeth Peyton retrospective at the New Museum, for instance:

There are two interesting moments, for me, in the video. The first is where the curator (looking, as curators often do, a bit panicked to have Kalm's video camera turned on her) tries to explain her assertion that Peyton's work mixes representation with conceptualism by saying that Peyton was married for ten years or so to conceptualist Rirkrit Tiravanija, and that they remain close, and that therefore, somehow, the Relational Aesthetics approach has rubbed off on Peyton, whose work (depicting, mostly, "iconic" 90s rock stars) is "an encounter" with her audience. (I don't buy that for a moment, by the way, but I can see why a curator might feel the need to say it of Peyton's work, just as they would say it of Jutta Koether's work, to avoid charges that it's "just bad painting", or snobby, or Darwinian, or an in-joke.)

The second classic moment in the video is when Kalm asks a professional critic what he thinks, and the man says: "It's just grad-school level work". I buy that much more readily, but my perplexity with Peyton's work goes much deeper. I can see some good things about it -- the fact that it's about grace and beauty, and manages to make even apes like the Gallaghers into these delicate, refined Wildean creatures. I can see how it's a kind of painterly version of Starlust-style slash fiction, which makes it in some way "democratic" as well as aristocratic (it's quite literally aristocratic: lots of pictures of the queen in there).

But mostly I really dislike Peyton's work. It makes me sigh and cringe. It seems utterly complicit with the most idiotic celebrity culture (come on, calling your first museum retrospective Live Forever after an Oasis song, in 2008!), sub-Warholian, postmodern at a time when postmodernism is teetering on its last legs, collectible in the most craven way, "iconic" in the stupidest way. It ushers popular culture into a gallery space I'd much rather see ignoring popular culture (already too omnipresent in our lives), and it chooses to celebrate an outdated, conservative, past-its-sell-by-date popular culture at that -- retro necro 90s Dadrock.

I'll open a flank for counter-attacks here ("This is all just sour grapes, Momus!") by saying that in my first visits to New York I was introduced to Elizabeth Peyton by Japanese painter Tam Ochiai, who was interviewing me for a magazine called Music and invited Peyton around too. If I was being checked out as a possible painting subject, I obviously failed. I did get invited to her studio, though, and got shown her paintings of HM the Queen, David Hockney, Marie Antoinette (quite possibly the inspiration for Sofia Coppola's anti-revolutionary shopping-and-fucking film) and Noel Gallagher. I think chinks in her tolerance began to appear when I tried to tell her that these were conservative, passé figures to dwell on, but I remember agreeing, just before emerging out onto Tompkins Square, that her images were about desire, and that that was A Good Thing.

Later, relations chilled further. I'd encounter Elizabeth at art bar Passerby, and once gaffed by asking my friend Steve Lafreniere "Why is someone playing Oasis? Elizabeth Peyton isn't here, is she?" only to see a hunched Elizabeth rise up, Oasis album in hand, to glare at me. I'm probably naive, I tend to assume New York artists are aesthetic and social radicals or are somehow against the status quo, when in fact they just want to join it and milk it. "All I wanna do," as MIA would say, "is take your money".

Anyway, after that I noticed that Elizabeth was getting her photo in the society pages of Vanity Fair, or being spotted at the parties of ultra-rich people out in the Hamptons. She seemed to join the celebrities she'd painted, almost as if her cave paintings had actually bagged her real life versions of the bulls and boars they depicted. I consoled myself with the thought that her paintings of 90s Dadrockers would date as quickly as their music.

Fast forward to now. The financial bubble which sustains the Marie-Antoinettish art-society world has burst. We're sick to death of the postmodernist collapse of high and low, which has filled galleries with "iconic" celebrities we could as easily see in cinemas, newspapers, concert halls and TV, thus wasting the few critical cultural lab spaces we have.

Nicolas Bourriaud -- the man who coined the term "Relational Aesthetics", and co-founded the Palais de Tokyo -- is now talking about something he calls the altermodern; the thing that comes after postmodernism. The next Tate Triennial, opening in February 2009, is titled Altermodern and curated by Bourriaud, and the blurb for it says "the term describes art made in today’s global context which is a reaction against standardisation and commercialism".

From what I've read (Shumon Basar's interview with Bourriaud in the current edition of Tank, for instance), the altermodern is about staging narratives of modernity and autonomy against the backdrop of the new globalization of multipolarity, a point-to-point, many-to-many model rather than the New World Order of 90s globalization, which arranged everything around a single, central hub (the US, the West). It's post-post-colonial, if you like.

"The altermodern" (alternative modernities, the rise of the rest) is a label that may or may not supercede "postmodernism". What it is likely to lead to (and I welcome this) is more shows like Cairoscape and fewer like Live Forever -- a phrase which is sounding more and more like an ironic epitaph, incidentally. Not just for Oasis or for Britpop or for the 90s, not just for the exhausted postmodernist habit of appropriating popular culture, celebrity and the "iconic", and not even for our culture's ouroboros-like tendency to banquet endlessly on its own tail, but for our sense, in the West, of the eternity of our centrality. It's over, Elizabeth, and it's okay.