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Peyton Place or the altermodern? - click opera
February 2010
Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 12:29 am
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I'd much rather see ignoring popular culture (already too omnipresent in our lives), and it chooses to celebrate an outdated, conservative, past-its-sell-by-date popular culture at that -- retro necro 90s Dadrock.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.


Thu, Oct. 9th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)

"deepening a financial crisis that has defied all efforts to stop it."
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081009/ap_on_bi_ge/financial_meltdown (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081009/ap_on_bi_ge/financial_meltdown)
i live in the USA(ssholes) ...i'm very scared!
save us Momus, please!

Thu, Oct. 9th, 2008 11:48 pm (UTC)

This correction is not all bad news. Read Peston:

"Shipping rates for transporting raw materials to the great manufacturing economies of the world, as measured by the Baltic Exchange Dry Index, have halved over the past month - and have fallen 75% since mid-May... There's been a further sharp drop in the price of commodity and energy prices. Good news in a way, if it leads to lower household bills."

It also seems to be getting Obama elected.

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 12:15 am (UTC)

I've had a sort of love-hate relationship with Peyton's paintings since I first paid attention to them, in 2004/2005, when it seemed she was getting the attention of the critics. I saw them at the Whitney Bienniel, and viewed them with a painful curiosity, because my own work was being likened to them (I work figuratively, with oils, and very stark backgrounds, with emphasis on color, and apparent brush strokes.)

The success of her work, as I see it, is in the way they are made. The surfaces are lovely, and heavily worked upon, but give the initial impression of something made hastily, because of the thin washes of color. And my work is a bit like that. But I don't obsess about smooth surface, or feel beholden to surface, otherwise the paintings get bad and too precious. She is really walking that line, and crossing over it in most cases.

What bothers me about her work is that it always feels like fandom, and I don't get off on that. It feels a bit juvenile and trite to me. When I started seeing her picture in the party spreads of the fashion magazines, something was confirmed for me. I feel that Peyton has been constructing fame, and that her paintings are the way she gets in with the popular kids.

Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 02:49 am (UTC)

I feel that Peyton has been constructing fame

It's like MIA says in Paper Planes:

Everyone's a winner now we're making that fame
Bonafide hustler making my name

Or Oasis in Live Forever:

Maybe I will never be
All the things that I want to be
But now is not the time to cry
Now's the time to find out why
I think you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are gonna live forever

(Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go detox in a big tub of Dettol.)

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Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 03:10 am (UTC)

Your Kalm vid reminded me of one I had seen by him on a Julian Schnabel exhibit. This got me curious as to your take on Schnabel (I enjoy him as a colorist and have always had a soft spot for that downtown '81 scene), so I googled imomus + schnabel which, strangely, led me to the heart of dorkness :)

"Edward's friends Zeph and Caroline, dot-com cash-outs, and their borderline-autistic colleague, who is known as the Artiste, introduce him to a Myst-like computer game called Momus. Zeph takes Edward to a LAN party -- LAN stands for Local Area Network -- where dozens of undersocialized information technology professionals pit their wits over high-bandwidth cables. ''Dude, I feel like you're leading me right into the heart of dorkness,'' Edward says. He's a stranger in the world of computer gamers and programmers, just as he is in the library; we enter it with him: ''He was starting to see what people found so addictive about these games. Momus had none of the slapdash inefficiency of reality: every moment was tense with hushed anticipation, foreordained meaning. It was a brighter, higher-grade, more compelling, better-engineered version of reality.'' You might say, just like fiction.

Zeph doesn't think so. Momus is an open-source code, collaborative software. ''Momus is big,'' Zeph tells Edward. ''Nobody knows who started it, it just bubbled up from our collective unconscious via the Internet. Not even the Artiste knows about everything that's in it. It's bigger than books. That library you're messing around with? Obsolete information technology. We're witnessing the dawn of a whole new artistic medium, and we don't even appreciate it.''

Edited at 2008-10-10 04:10 am (UTC)

Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 01:41 pm (UTC)

I had a little tiny "Schnabel moment" when I saw his paintings at, I think, The Whitechapel in, I think, the late 80s. I remember being impressed by the variety of his techniques and materials and references (and especially by Joy Division references). Since then, though, nothing Schnabel has painted has really moved me, though I think he's a good film director.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 06:23 am (UTC)

Ha, yes, quite. One's made for $10 an hour, the other is $10,000 a stroke. And yet they both manage to look like the result of a Photoshop filter.

Peytonize: Set level of runniness 0-10. Preview / Cancel.

ReplyThread Parent

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

Re: FANGIRLS - (Anonymous) Expand

Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 07:31 am (UTC)

postmodernism is teetering on its last legs

Postmodernism is the name of the cultural period we're all in. I see your attempts to 'transcend' or 'deny' this as a form of bad faith. And I think postmodernism will not be superceded by denials and reactions against its core values, but by a complete embracing of them. That's why I like pop records like Cher's 'Believe'. By embracing postmodern production, by showing that there's no contradiction between the human voice and an electronic harmoniser, between technology and emotion, between contrivance and sincerity, or confection and belief, or the engineer and the humanist, 'Believe' brings the end of postmodernism closer because it brings closer the day in which to be postmodern will be as natural as breathing.


Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 02:37 pm (UTC)

To my understanding, the key tenets of postmodernism are that (A) there can be no meaning in a piece of art besides its semiotic meaning and (B) semiotic meaning is generated entirely by context. Obviously, the result of this is the work's absorption into blooming clouds of irrelevance when its context suffers a major change. The viewer experiences a loss of faith. Or many do, anyway. Just like Peyton was shortsighted enough not to anticipate for as contrived a phenomenon as Oasis. Who indeed cares about a splashy, post-impressionistic rendering of Noel Gallagher now? Undoubtedly some do, but their ranks have surely thinned.

Postmodernism is the sandbox allotted to artists by the financial elites who actually define context. Small wonder then that it would be looking a bit gaunt and shaky now.


ReplyThread Parent
Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 07:40 am (UTC)

I can relate to your criticism of Peyton and celebrity culture.
Her work is superficial.

But I wonder if you think painting even has a place in the future "altermodern" world? You are certainly part of the current zeitgeist with its love for intervention, conceptual anti-art, and new media installation ...

so what about painting and sculpture, that old-fashioned stuff .. a total waste of time?


Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 08:26 am (UTC)

If you posit Duchamp's urinal as its beginning, then conceptual art goes back a long way now, almost a century, ie more or less before anyone alive now was born. In that context, I don't see painting or sculpture as being more old hat than conceptual art. When conceptual art gets boring (arguably now, now that the YBA movement is played out) other forms get "rediscovered".

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Bonsai Human
Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 09:37 am (UTC)

That art is just... terrible. Absolutely terrible.

90% of sixteen year old girls could produce it, and do.

I hate the world sometimes, for handing people money for shit.

the maven
Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 02:51 pm (UTC)

I watched Durch die Nacht mit...Goldie and DJ Scream last night.
Usually a very good show, this one was awful but I was woken up when Scream asked Goldie if still painted. Goldie said he could knock out a canvas and that would be ten grand.


Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC)

Do you have any idea where to watch Durch die Nacht episodes in case I missed their original airing? Sadly, Arte Plus 7 doesn't offer this.


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Thomas Scott
Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 09:41 pm (UTC)

Good post, I hope you can make a podcast of the talk available at some point.

Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 11:14 pm (UTC)

do let us know if text or video of your talk makes its way to the web

Fri, Oct. 10th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)

That's really up to the audience / AA -- all my available electronics will be providing imagery rather than recording the talk.

ReplyThread Parent