The newest star to twinkle in the infernal blackness that traverses the space between economics and culture is Eddie Peake. He made his auction début at Christie’s in February with one of his mirror paintings, which realised £32,000, more than double its high estimate. And so another young man is thrust onto the stage to sing for the breathless amusement of the art market. Peake, however, is different because his practice is diverse and complex: no matter how he performs in the market, a lot of criticism is needed to work out what his beguiling work is all about.
At first glance, Peake seems to fit the mould of today’s young artists: he is devilishly good-looking, utterly charming and makes work which speaks in a multi-layered way to the zeitgeist. His practice includes performance, sculpture and painting, enacting a unique fusion of theatrics and objects that both glitter like gold and embody the word on the street. It’s like the bling of Kassay with the edge of Murillo, but with a slow-burning intelligence. But this rising star has established the quality of his work on the cultural platform as a precursor to the prices.
Born in London in 1981, Peake graduated from the Slade in 2006, before taking up a residency at the prestigious British School in Rome in 2008. While at the Royal Academy Schools in 2012, he staged the performance Touch, which got the chattering classes chattering, leading to a performance to open Tate Modern’s Tanks with the hilariously titled Amidst a Sea of Flailing High Heels and Cooking Utensils. Then he exhibited Adjective Machine Gun (2013) at White Cube Bermondsey, quickly gaining full representation by the gallery.
In addition to performance, Peake has a stable of three-dimensional works, including a series of mirror paintings: highly polished steel with lacquered spray paint applied to create slogans in the parlance of his native North London. They say funny, awkward, confrontational things like ‘hard dick in batty’, ‘crushingly hopeless’ and ‘he doesn’t need to know’. These pieces slot nicely into a certain trend for a street vibe with an intoxicating high art finish; they possess a distinct visual language and they look magical on the wall.
Touch, a naked five-a-side football match where the teams were differentiated only by the colour of their socks, perfectly illustrates why Peake is a serious, talented artist, rather than a mere market puppet. The audience are voyeurs whose gaze oscillates awkwardly between eroticism and artistry, as the bare male form is presented as an object of desire and as pure sculptural entity. The performance is an intellectual provocation and it is a bunch of lads playing sport; the movements are instinctive, natural and alluring, and they are strangely choreographed into a high art ballet which eludes desire. At the end, you feel delicately ashamed of your voyeurism because Peake has orchestrated it in such a way that it possesses the discrete charm of an ambiguous joke. It’s more than gratuitous nudity because it is deliberately poetic, but it is somehow less than the neutrality of the Nude because the performers are clearly chosen for their physical qualities.
People say that Peake’s work is homoerotic, but this is a gloss on the crude fact that it consists in a boy getting other boys to take their clothes off. Homoeroticism would comprise, first, its being primarily aimed at men, and second, an attempt to elicit a response of desire (in gay men), envy or ineffable curiosity (in straight men) and mere titillation (in women). In essence, homoeroticism is a simple-minded attempt at stirring mischievous excitement, but Peake’s work is infinitely more complex than this, even if it does consciously play on those key elements.
Instead, Peake’s work occupies a liminal space where the gaze, or the Sartrean Look, is confounded. Whilst you are looking at the Other, you are never sure what you are supposed to be looking at – a football match, or a group of naked men, which, after all, are conceptually very different things. And you are never sure what you are supposed to be looking for: whilst the culture industry assures you there is a point, it fizzles somewhere just out of reach, as if you are confronted with the entirely erroneous task of viewing pornography as art or ballet as pornography. The only certainty is that you should be looking – there is a spectacle occurring and it’s trying to tell you something.
On seeing the mirror paintings and the performance together at White Cube, it suddenly became clear that Peake is engaged in a socio-political critique which transcends the needs of the market. As you walked around that exhibition trying not to look like you were getting a good look at the roller-skater’s penis through his tight-fitting, translucent outfit, you caught your own guilty reflection in one of the mirror paintings. But not only did you see yourself, as if catching yourself in the act, you also discovered a covert way of checking out the talent by pretending to study the shiny surface of a hip artwork. In a crushing instant you realise that his work is trying to make you look in on yourself as the constant, unflinching voyeur. It is not about them at all, it is all about you and what you’re doing whilst these nice boys are going about the business that the gallery is paying them to do. Peake lures you in with the promise of jouissace in the Other and then turns it back on you, causing the edifice of your high-minded artworld pretence to crumble into a severe questioning of a society which encourages you to just look at things.
But enough of this rich critical prose and back to the market, which is the butt of the joke here. The market has swooped down on Peake because he makes super trendy stuff that makes rich people feel cool, and with Jay Jopling behind him prices will soar and the boy will buy a street in Islington before he’s 40. These highly desirable and brilliant works are intricate elements in an artistic practice that is so intelligent and so finely honed that the market probably doesn’t recognise its true value.
But the market is only telling half the story – the bit about the highly desirable objects – whereas the magic of Peake is in the transcendent wonder of the totality. The Peake package that the market is selling is the same old bundle of sexycool boy who makes trendy treasures, but that is eclipsed by the fact they are part of a razor sharp critique of contemporary society, rendered in an aesthetic that is very Now and very Tomorrow.
Words Daniel Barnes