The Soft Boys

Elizabeth Peyton’s painting uses the tropes of amateur fan art to tame the fluidity of queer desire

Imagine you are looking at a picture of a patently pretty boy, all ruby lips and razor-cut cheekbones. His name is Kurt. Why bother with surnames? You, like everyone else, feel like you know him personally, maybe intimately, and in any case even a loose allusion to his iconic visage, like the one here, is instantly recognizable. If you need a hint (and you shouldn’t), his last name rhymes with cocaine and he’s just as glamorous.

In 1994, Elizabeth Peyton quit her day job as a photo researcher and bounded into fine art full-time with a cycle of portraits of recent suicide Kurt Cobain. Relying on a Rolling Stone book for source material, Peyton painted and drew the lead singer repeatedly, titling the resultant pieces Kurt or some variation thereof. Tightly cropped and on an intimate scale, these highly stylized portraits retain Cobain’s long blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and the molten glow of his star power, but those markers are embedded in an overall characterization that is fey, androgynous, and angular: He becomes a body barely there, that exists primarily to receive desire—more diamanté Cullen than Cobain.

Peyton has since gravitated toward the young, male, and über-famous, painting portraits of David Bowie, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Lennon, Pete Doherty, Stephen Malkmus, Sid Vicious, and most recently Justin Bieber. Claiming a fan’s devotion to her subjects, Peyton combines artifice with unadumbrated adoration to alluring effect. She depicts these various famous faces in a highly stylized fashion, endowing them with the red lips, smoldering eyes, and high cheekbones of gay iconography, while minimizing their musculature in a softcore wash of androgyny. Again and again, the artist produces the same lush, gender-blended pastiche of gay and hetero-, male and female: a hot mess of unstable signifiers.

More than manifesting desires unique to Peyton, these mannered celebrity portrayals embody the desires put forth by a culture of convergence, where corporate processes and the various desires of consumers meet. Kurt is a collectively produced male spectacle who comes to an inevitably queer head as (to borrow from Lee Edelman’s definition of “queer”) “a force … of dissolution into the fluxions of a subjectless desire.” In this way, Peyton’s work has much in common with amateur fan art (even though some of her pieces have sold for over a million dollars).

Peyton takes the stars, already objects of mass cultural desire, and makes the amplification and interrogation of that desire her subject. Her stylized paintings point to the celebrity as both stencil—factory-produced, infinitely repeatable—and warm plastic that can be re-formed by the wants and needs of those who consume it. She is at once invested in her subjects as an adoring fan and interested in the way that present-day “prosumers” play a role in shaping—and frequently queering—mass cultural desire. The prosuming fan artist takes a popular character or celebrity as an origin text and reproduces, restages, and reconfigures it. (There’s something unexpectedly tender about treating a figure you adore as a text, as a vacancy of sorts; you’ve produced a love that consumes its object.) These proliferating adaptations emerge in conversation with popular narratives, personal subjectivities, and the forms, genres, and erotic interests of the fan-art community. Peyton’s work sheds light on this pleasurable, productive, repeated queering of mass cultural texts that occurs in fan communities with their overinvested prosumption.

In the art world, critics tend to dance around Peyton’s fannish approach. Fan art is often associated with amateurism and adolescent female desire projected from a distance, and the notion that the interests, desires, and activities of female adolescents might contain inherent value is tossed aside. A common claim made for Peyton is not that she captures that adolescent value but instead the real human fragility of celebrities, working at an intimate scale and depicting her subjects in casual poses. Peyton herself bristled at the suggestion that she might have mere adolescent-style crushes on her subjects: “I don’t like that word ‘crush.’ It sounds light—you know, l-i-t-e. I really love the people I paint.”

But Peyton may have been distancing herself from the patronizing attitude toward fan art, as her practice resembles it in several ways. Her body of work has been thoroughly filtered through the museum and auction house circuits, but back when she had more control over its distribution and reception, she chose to show it in alternative, democratic venues—the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, the working-class Prince Albert pub in Brixton—not unlike the accessible fan-art sites that flourish online. Her images have a made-at-home feel, fashioned on a small, manageable scale, using a range of media: oil paint on board, charcoal, pencil, watercolor. Over time, she has shifted from rich-hued jewel tones to a more washed-out grisaille palette, closer to what an amateur artist might produce at home with a pencil. She refuses commissions, depicting only those public figures who have secured her attention through their publicity. And while Peyton sometimes works from sitters, she typically uses press images that are designed to bring the stars into the space of the home through computer monitors, magazine glossies, and pull-out posters. Rather than access a deeper intimacy than what is available to fans, Peyton rearticulates the intimacy that has already been staged in the celebrity’s PR effort.

The queer desire explored by Peyton’s work is aligned with the queer readings, elicited by pop culture, that are an old standby of fandom and fannish production: from the romantic pairing of Kirk and Spock in Star Trek “slash” fan fiction in the 1970s—the predecessor of, say, #Jakeward in Twilight fan fiction today—to Japanese yaoi, a genre which erotically pairs androgynous men and is marketed to preteen and adolescent girls. Peyton’s epicene portrayal of singer-friends Pete Doherty and Peter Wolf making out, based on a photograph, is certainly evocative of that “boys’ love” genre.

With the portrait Princess Kurt, Peyton moves more overtly into the realm of “genderfuck” fan fiction and fan art, in which one or more characters shift in sex or gender. Peyton paints two largely similar depictions of a red-lipped, lissome Cobain performing in profile. In one, Cobain’s clothes are nondescriptly masculine; in the other, he dons a flimsy dress and tiara, from a 1993 concert in Brazil. Performative cross-dressing is one of the ways that the genderfuck genre—which can get quite explicit—slips into the mainstream, as with the genderfuck-inflected Princess Princess, a popular anime adaptation of a manga in which a group of boys at an all boys’ school are selected to dress as princesses. Even when it is not related to sexuality or gender per se, that mutability is one of the central features of fan art across subgenres: In Twilight fan art, the line between vamp-androgyne Edward Cullen and the real-life actor who plays him, Rob Pattinson, begins to slip.

To fan artists, pop cultural figures are clay, ready to be shaped and squeezed through various subjectivities. In fan art’s many hands these figures become the ambiguously queer expression of an uncategorizable eroticism. The gender-blended forms that have become standard in the genre, forms which Peyton invokes, amalgamate a spectrum of desire broad enough to be crowd-sourced. The repeated infusion of a quasi heterosexual object choice with quasi homosexual desire speaks volumes about the heterosexist “boy likes girl” script failing to satisfy the complex and varied needs of human beings who consume culture.

Peyton has noted that she gravitates toward male subjects who “objectify themselves, which is a female trait.” These stars come to her pre-softened, already made malleable for the consumer as objects of whatever desire is on the table. The gender-blended look that Peyton applies to Cobain feels less transgressive now, when many prototypical male stars actually look like that today. It’s not a coincidence that lusted-after teen idol Justin Bieber presents somewhat ambiguously with regards to gender and sexuality (as manifested in the Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber tumblr), which is why he looked noticeably unusual in his heavily muscled, heavily Photoshopped underwear advertisement for Calvin Klein.

Boy bands and their producers know what they’re doing when they churn out male stars with effeminate inflections; it’s to make the girls scream. At performances, concertgoers frequently can’t even see these star performers through the sea of people, but the fan knows that the pop idol is there, a safe (socially accepted), nonthreatening (non-desiring) sponge prepared to soak up desire. So queer culture is put into conversation with, or co-opted by, commercial culture, and gender fluidity is intriguingly written into popular narratives of desire.

In Peyton’s work and fan art alike, celebrities are represented with pretty, girlish faces and lithe, barely-there bodies, stylized as to be virtually interchangeable with one another. Her fannish approach can be subjected to the same sort of critique leveled at the celebrity fan art genre and boy-band producers: It can seem like she appropriates feminized male bodies and male-male homosexual relationships mainly for the pleasure of predominantly straight woman.

Homoerotic manga targeted at gay male audiences, bara, is a separate genre from yaoi in which the males depicted tend to be heavily muscled; bara emerged from gay fetish mags, whereas yaoi emerged from fan fiction written by women. Peyton’s predilection for aesthetically softening her male subjects is more aligned with yaoi and its largely straight-identifying female readers. While this approach opens up heterosexual desire to queer possibilities, its digestibility means that it is—for better or for worse—more easily coopted by the mainstream.

Today’s media franchises can fear fannish production, but more often they cater to it; in one explicit example of that catering, screenwriters for the television series Xena: Warrior Princess responded to masses of queer fan fiction around the show by writing in subtext for a lesbian relationship between two lead characters. The queering of the mainstream emerges as both culturally determined and culturally determining.

Though we might think of fan artists as image consumers and Peyton as an image producer, each are actually both: They are prosumers, adapting what they consume from mass culture and saturating it with personal subjectivities and experiences. Numerous desires meet, converse, and mutate; the laws of the market demand that they must be satisfied. The process of prosumption is thus queer and queering, imbued with all the passion, liminality, and heavy consumption that characterize that in-between of adolescence from which most fan art emerges.

In invoking fan art’s queer forms, Peyton’s work draws attention to the dialogic manner in which fannish desire is produced. This is the queer desire, the fluidity of want that we want—but its space for rebellion is delimited by that omnipresent parent: capitalism.