Interview with David Shapiro.David Shapiro: Every time I begin an interview, it's always hard to know what to ask...
Elizabeth Peyton: I find it's much better when you don't know the person you're interviewing.
DS: Because, if I already knew you, I'd be feigning ignorance to ask about your new book...
EP: Well, it's not really done yet... but it's about Tony. It's about one man, and it's about love, first of all, and it's about how one person can really change everything. It's sort of like what my work's always about - but this book, in particular, is about meeting this person -- he reminded me so much of Napoleon when I first met him. Napoleon didn't change the world just by being brutal - it's also because he was really magnetic and really sexy - he's a beautiful man and he had a big vision about life. When I met Tony, I had the same feeling - when he walked into a room, people would really change around him, and he wasn't even trying. And I could just see it, especially more when I didn't know him that well, because it was so different being around his air, and now I'm really used to it - so I wanted to make a book about that - just about one man. It's also a kind of a story of me getting closer to him over the course of a year - the camera gets closer to him, and I'm less shy around him.
DS: The art becomes closer physically?
EP: Physically and also emotionally. The book is inspired by a Shakespeare poem - one of those sonnets. Shakespeare wrote to this young man and said that all the wars in the world can happen, everything can change, but I'm going to make art inspired by you, and you'll live forever. That's a beautiful idea.
DS: That's the nice thing about art inspired by other people. People who've left your life stay with you.
EP: And people change every second. It's not even about leaving you or dying or anything like that - people just change.
DS: Do you think that that's a good reason to make paintings from photographs?
EP: It's a good reason to paint. Period. Photographs, yeah, but you get that in drawing. The thing with the camera is that sometimes you get stuff that you don't see, and you don't want to reproduce that stuff exactly - like those weird facial movements. But between all three of them - memory, photos, and drawing from people - it's a pretty great way to get a moment.
DS: So, you might work with all three for a single painting?
EP: Yeah. Inevitably when I'm painting, I'll come back to something that I've been drawing. I really like to draw people from life - even if the drawings aren't that good. I usually get really overwhelmed by drawing - just like "Oh my God - You're so beautiful!" (laughs) You learn a different way of rendering them when they're there.
DS: Did you study drawing and painting in school?
DS: A lot of technical training?
EP: No. It's really a problem - but maybe it's also a good thing. I always drew when I was little. Then I went to SVA, which is very second-generation Abstract Expressionist, sort of like, "you don't need technical training" and "be in the moment and feel it." We could opt to take some technical courses, but there weren't a lot. There some good drawing classes and I took them. Still, I feel like with painting and drawing, I've been really handicapped by not knowing how to paint - but it's also good, because it leaves me very fresh - every day, having to sort of make it up. Intuitively, of course, I do know it, but not off the top of my head - so, I when I stop for a couple of months, it's always like, "How do I do this? How do I want to see things? How do I want to make it?"
DS: So, what makes you stop for a couple of months?
EP: All kinds of things. Sometimes I'll stop consciously if I feel like I've been painting a lot and I want a break, and I just want to draw. And sometimes, it's times like now - I'm moving and have a lot of real-life stuff to do.
DS: And anyway, you can't just paint. I've had times in which I've been under the misconception that if I just painted all of the time, I'd be alright. (EP laughs). If you just sleep and eat your meals and then paint all day...
EP: Some people are really good painters that way. And I've done it too - swimming, painting, eating, watching TV, waking up and doing the same thing - it can be really good. But I used to be more like that - paint all the time. But now, it's been so long since I've had a regular thing, I'm beginning to think that I'll go crazy if I don't start painting every day.
DS: Do you think it's important to paint every day?
EP: Not every day - but to have it in my life - having that relationship to people, where it's not just knowing them, but it's also keeping them, and having time away from them to think about them, which is what I do when I'm painting - and take time to do it with myself too.
DS: And painting's about other people?
EP: It's about finding yourself and thinking about other people.
DS: Was it a conscious choice to not paint abstractly?
EP: No, but after the fact, it becomes conscious. When I'm put to the question, I kind of believe in humanity. Everyone can understand it - but I guess everyone can understand abstract work as well - it's more sensuous. People are so affected by other people in their life; they can't help but to relate to paintings of people.
DS: Do you think one would be sadder if they made a life of painting other things besides people?
EP: No. Artists find how they look at the world. I know people who look at the world as more defined by space. I don't think there is any better or worse.
DS: Your figures aren't much in the way of space - they're more in their own space.
EP: In my head, I like to know where they are. I'm not so interested in just heads. It's their body and their face and their eyes, and I'm interested in the backs of people sometimes - their left shoulder or other things about them. A lot of the drawings have more space.
(EP and DS check out a few new drawings)
EP: I like to keep my own work.
DS: Rather than sell it?
EP: Yeah, when I can. Some things are especially important to me, and I really try to keep them. But most of the times when something's really personal to you, it's great to think of it being in some stranger's bedroom.
DS: That's somehow what it's all about - in the end, being on someone else's wall.
EP: It completes the cycle.
DS: Do you shoot the pictures for your paintings?
EP: When I was doing stuff with musicians, I wasn't. But now, I'm mostly working with people I know, so I mostly use my own pictures.
DS: Do you consider your photography an art? Would you show it?
EP: Well yeah, but painting is very different. Photographs are more random - I do take them pretty seriously - show them sometimes, make books out of them, but, I don't make a big deal out of them - I just stare at them.
DS: I wonder why photography has become such a dominant way of representing things. Take, for example, the very title of this year's show "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers." I couldn't imagine a show having been put together called "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Painters."
EP: Why do you think it's gone that way?
DS: I don't know - but visually, our culture seems to be in some place in which the one thing people don't want to do is paint people - unless it's relegated to some other place.
EP: It's a very hard thing to not make it very corny - painting people. But people always love paintings of people - in a way. Photos are really very sexy - they're really easy. Sometimes I wish I could just be a photographer - as if that were enough for me -- but it's not -- or maybe I'm not a good enough photographer for it to be enough. DS: So do you have any favorite painters?
EP: Favorite painters? Yeah, lots of them! I love Warhol. I love Sargent. I love Van DyckI love Goya and Velazquez, and Edouard Manet. And I love Karen Kilimnik.
DS: And David Hockney? (looking at the pictures of him taped to the wall)
EP: I love David Hockney! Staring at me in the face! He's really inspirational.
DS: Is it more Hockney or more Hockney's paintings?
EP: Both! Really both! I love that in the '70s, in the time of high dry conceptualism, he was doing portraits, and he was really rendering them. And he believed in it too.
DS: Why did he believe in it?
EP: Because he believed in humanity, and humanism, and people -- and he also looked fantastic. He was so aware of his image. He became a blonde pretty young and had more fun. He just had a lot of glamour to him. And he paints things he loves - like his dogs.
DS: Do you think people ever do paint against their love?
EP: I can't say. But, there have been schools of people being cynical - or things like that. Most great painters don't have to think about it - they know what they love. And there've been other times, when people do commissions of people that I'm sure they don't love - but they learn to embrace them.
DS: Like Sargent?
EP: Yeah, he could see some kind of beauty in them - bring it out, or put there even if it couldn't be brought out - a very positive move to try to put that in everyone