Self-portrait of the digital age

PT-AK815_PORTRA_D_20090206162557 Lovely piece by Lee Siegel in this morning's WSJ about the popular contemporary American portraitist Elizabeth Peyton. Siegel gives us a brief history of the portrait in western art from the Classical painting of a face by Rembrandt as a representation of good or evil, to the Romantic focus on individual genius to the democratization of the portrait in the contemporary age of ubiquitous media.

In the face (to excuse the pun) of the camera, television and the Internet, Siegel explains that leading  American portraitists like Peyton, Alex Katz, Alfred Leslie and Chuck Close have "hungered to reclaim the face." But the faces that Peyton is reclaiming are eerily familiar. What Siegel sees in Peyton's portaits  of her "languid stick-like" friends are images of the artist herself as well as of ephemeral  bloodless celebrity:

The tribe of the obscure look strikingly similar to one another:blank-faced, thin, closed-up yet strangely open, looking so intensely outward that it feels they must actually be looking inward...They are also strikingly similar to the tribe of the celebrities, who bear the same physical features. You feel that the desire of Ms. Peyton's friends to be famous is so powerful that they have acquired the appearance of the celebrities they yearn for -- the way dogs begin to resemble their masters. Most jarring of all, nearly all of Ms. Peyton's subjects, both famous and obscure, don't just resemble each other. They also look a lot like her: delicately featured, wispish, androgynous.

Peyton, it would seem, is not so much painting herself -- as all of our faces in the digital age of dreaminess, celebrity and sameness. Her art reminds me of the people I see on planes and in airports staring at photography magazines of empty faced celebrities. Yes, like dogs resembling their masters, these people end up looking like celebrities. Which is another way of saying that they've had all the blood and guts sucked out their faces. As Siegel says of Peyton's "dreamy insubstantial" faces -- they are "all waiting to be fulfilled by fantasies that will never be realized."

12302288514764 As Siegel suggests, we've come a long way from Rembrandt van Rijn's sensuous 1635 "Saskia With a Veil" with its face as the world to Peyton's painting of the face as an empty-vessel. It's no wonder that Lee Siegel is such a critic of the digital revolution. He's looked it in the face and its obviousl that he doesn't like what he's seen.