SOOTHING news for the Daily Mail-reading, molar-gnashing detractors of Britart: the Damiens and Traceys of the art world might still churn out unintelligible, introspective work, but a number of artists (bless their cotton smocks) are turning to representational, often traditional portraiture. And yes, their subjects are reassuringly familiar - A-grade celebs, dead or alive, to be precise.
Granted, some of Damien's mates - those raffish Young British Artists or YBAs - have produced artrageous celebrity portraits. Middle England flipped its lid over Marcus Harvey's Myra Hindley piece, remember? More palatable were Gavin Turk's Sid Vicious effigy and Gary Hume's household- paint portraits of Kate Moss, Patsy Kensit and Tony Blackburn. Then there's US painter Elizabeth Peyton's boy-celebs. A tad wan yet still daisy-fresh, her rosebud-lipped, Rimbaud-like Leonardo DiCaprio, lovable roues the Gallaghers and art martyr Kurt Cobain cutely fuse 1890s consumptive languor and 1990s heroin chic. Then there's fellow American Karen Kilimnik's fey, faux-naif portraits of Twiggy, Alicia Silverstone, La Moss et al... Similarly starstruck are Japanese sculptor Junhase Gawa (hybrids of Pamela Anderson and manga dolls) and Brit splodger Andrew Grassie (stratospherically famous astronauts).
Francesco Clemente knocked up those portraits of Gwyneth Paltrow co-"painted" by Ethan Hawke in Great Expectations. On display until recently at the Tate was Lucian Freud's pregnant Jerry Hall. In September, London's Emily Tsingou Gallery will show Austrian artist Elke Krystufek's images of Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, while the ICA will screen US film-maker TJ Wilcox's flick of famous Thirties fop Stephen Tennant, played by grand-niece Stella.
"Celebrity portraits are a reaction against the self-obsessed art of many YBAs," believes Katya Garcia-Anton, exhibitions organiser at the ICA, referring presumably to such soul-searching creations as Tracey Emin's tent embroidered with ex-bedmates' names. "A lot of artists are looking outwards instead, at images from popular culture: people on TV, in fashion, Princess Diana... Artists are absorbing glamorous, ultimately more accessible, engaging imagery."
Matthew Slotover, editor of art mag Frieze, agrees: "With so many images of celebrities, it's perfectly logical that artists are interested in them."
But are celeb portraits a symptom of Nineties, Hello!-style celebrity worship or a critique of it? Neither, according to Slotover: "These artists are simply fascinated that we're always seeing images of people we don't actually know."
Certainly, it's an idea Peyton's work embodies. Interested in showing how the media mythologises celebs, she works from tabloid snaps, film stills or video freeze-frames - not life. "She once saw Liam Gallagher in a bar and was asked if she'd said `Hello' to him," says Slotover. "She said, `Of course not'. She's not interested in the actual person, but the fact that our only contact with celebs is via the media." So why does she use traditional oils to depict her oft-photographed "heroes" (as she calls them without a smidge of irony)?
"Her work is about fan-dom," says Slotover, "so paint is a more appropriate medium than photography, as it's warmer, more emotional." Krystufek, meanwhile, says she doesn't idolise her subjects but identifies with them. In fashionably confessional mode, she says Sedgwick interested her because, "she had the same eating disorder as me. She and Monroe appealed because I once feared I might not live long and wanted success in exchange for having a fucked-up life."
Kilimnik hero-worships her luvvie subjects more overtly. (Ironically, she rarely grants interviews: "Sometimes people misinterpret what I say," she reasons.) Even so, her work is ambiguous. It often incorporates childlike, upper-case jottings redolent of the way teenyboppers gushingly print their idols' names on jeans and notepads.
Most celebrity portraitists needn't fear they're being sycophantic, however. Far worse is the near-orgiastic backscratching of celebrity sitters and big-name artistes. "Being painted by someone unconventional like Freud is confirmation that you're iconoclastic," says Martin Townsend, associate editor of OK!, about Jerry Hall, the pregnant subject of Freud's "Eight Months Gone". Over to you, Mr Freud: "She wondered if I'd like to paint her in this condition and it was too generous an offer to refuse," the artist said modestly.
Not that lesser-knowns need feel left out. Get painting sexy stars and you could achieve celeb status yourself. Peyton's oeuvre, for example, evinces the most precious accolades imaginable: "flowerlike and fleeting", "achingly stealable", etc, etc... What of the galleries that show this work? Are they sure to reap big bucks? "No," insists Emily Tsingou, who represents Krystufek and Kilimnik. "Good work, of whatever kind, gets a good response." Yet isn't the media more likely to zoom in on mugshots of gorgeous celebs? "Yes," she concedes. "They want their audience to read their articles, so their images must be attractive," before adding, "Kilimnik draws flowers too. It's just that her portrait of Kate Moss is more glamorous." Yes, Petal. And more posy than a posy.Reuse content