Style & Arts: Studio Style & Arts

March 1, 2009

THE BACK STORY: An Artist's Private Eye

How fitting that painter Elizabeth Peyton opened the latest edition of her mid-career survey on Valentine's Day. In "Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," she renders friends or strangers -- as varied as the artist's former husband, Georgia O'Keeffe and Kurt Cobain -- with infatuated intimacy. The exhibit, originally at New York's New Museum and now making its last American stop at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center -- finds Peyton painting these beloveds in delicious pigments that pool on her surfaces. The New York artist's portrait of Michelle and Sasha Obama translates a magazine photo into oil. Through Peyton's sure brushwork, a public event -- the title is "Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008" -- gains a striking patina of privacy. The artist talks about the work via e-mail:

W magazine had asked me to contribute something for their fall 2008 art issue and said I could do whatever I wanted. Originally I told them that I wanted to make a picture of Barack Obama from life (rather than a photo), which didn't work out. I thought they had dropped the idea and meanwhile I was asked to make a piece for a New York City monthly art and music salon -- called Evas Arche und der Feminist -- and I made the picture of Michelle and Sasha.

I made the picture in five days, which is unusually fast for me. I bought all of the magazines with the Obamas in them and looked for pic tures. This particular image comes from Jet magazine. I was struck by this image of Michelle and Sasha because it was so normal and monumental at the same time -- a transcendent mother-and-child picture in the midst of history being made. The original photo was already great but by making it into a painting transformed it into a transcendent image.

One might say it's a milestone to have Barack Obama elected as president, but to have an African American first lady and daughters somehow seems more transgressive and culture changing.

-- Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Dawson

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Elizabeth Peyton and Gavin Brown's Enterprise WEB EDITOR: Stephanie Merry - washingtonpost.com

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