(Photo: Guardian)

Elizabeth Peyton – painter of celebrities, celebrity painter. Is there much more to be said? Now in her mid-forties, this native New Yorker has acquired such a reputation for her wan little portraits of pop stars, art stars, dealers and collectors that her society status appears almost indivisible from theirs.

In a sense, Peyton is the painterly equivalent of photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller, so completely a part of the very world they record for magazines as well as art museums. And in fact she also takes, and exhibits, photos of her friends; Marc Jacobs, Chloë Sevigny, Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, faces skimmed from social occasions. The curator of a recent show called these somewhat insouciant (and often poorly exposed) shots “acts of devotion”, which is striking precisely because this is the exact claim people always make for her paintings.

But the question raised by the paintings, as opposed to the photographs, is how can one possibly tell?

Peyton’s portraits sound like a fan’s visions, sure enough. Liam and Noel Gallagher imagined in their Sunday best on their mum’s sofa; Liam in violet-blue shadow; Liam in flowers; Jarvis delicately offering Liam a light. Kurt Cobain in white, silver, as a child, with his favourite cat, as a blanched and beautiful face – not too far from reality.

All these paintings are based on spreads from the NME, Rolling Stone and so forth. The translation into oil paint involves flattening, cropping and a kind of whimsical simplification, not so radical that the star is no longer recognisable, nor so streamlined you could really call it stylish. The main effect is simply of homogeneity. All these famous figures – no matter how individual, how young or old, solitary, tormented, cheerful or gregarious, no matter what profession or sex – share a family resemblance. They all look like Elizabeth Peytons.


Laura Cumming