Elizabeth Peyton, a young artist with a studio near Tompkins Square in the East Village, paints -- and she is hot. That itself is unusual at a time when conceptual, installation, performance or video art is the ticket to art world stardom and cutting-edge exhibition venues. Even more unusual, Ms. Peyton paints people: vividly colorful, true-to-life representations of rock icons like Kurt Cobain and historical figures like Napoleon.
More startling still, Ms. Peyton's work, on view in a small show at the Museum of Modern Art, has some people talking about a return to beauty in art, a resurgence of figurative work and a revival of painting.
All of which should make for some provocative conversations in Ms. Peyton's home. Her artist-husband, Rirkrit Tiravanija, is also a sought-after contemporary artist. But his metier is the opposite of hers. He makes what he calls parallel spaces, creating environments in a gallery that mimic a restaurant or his apartment or a day care center and then beckoning visitors to interact with him or his surrogates.
He, too, was invited to show his work at the Modern this year. On that occasion, he built a child-size, glass-walled pavilion in the museum's sculpture garden that became a playhouse and a classroom for the museum's education program.
In contrast to her paintings, which last, his participatory installations exist only briefly, leaving just leftover food or other detritus and photographs of the event. Rarely has a duo represented two polar extremes of art as Ms. Peyton and Mr. Tiravanija do.
Neither of them would discuss their domestic conversations about art, but they clearly have them. Ms. Peyton, sitting in a booth at an East Village coffee shop one recent afternoon, looked annoyed when asked if the pair talk about art at home. "What do you think?" she said, uncurling her hands from a glass of lemonade and reaching for a French cigarette.
Ms. Peyton had just returned from a raft of art fairs and festivities in Europe. Mr. Tiravanija is still there, having agreed to spend a year working in Germany.
When they are in town, however, the two -- he is 36, she 31 -- are fixtures in Soho. Both exhibit at Gavin Brown's Enterprise on Broome Street, which is known for a close, family spirit among its artists. Ms. Peyton called Mr. Brown her best friend and said she and her husband had found many of their friends among other artists.
"They have a huge following," said Lea Freid, the director of Lombard-Freid Fine Arts. Lisa Spellman, the director of 303 Gallery, which handled Mr. Tiravanija's work from 1990 to '95, said, "Both are particularly of the moment."
That moment is complex. Contemporary art has no clear focus or dominant movement, although works about body parts, disease, gender and the bizarrely personal have been abundant. Conceptual work like Mr. Tiravanija's is far more voguish than painting, especially when it is representational.
Indeed, one critic recently said her work seemed to belong to the end of the 19th century, not the 20th. Another critic, Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the Village Voice, called her paintings "fabulously charming," but added that in more sophisticated times her work would be "items of entry-level, training-wheels art taste." In other reviews, the word kitschy has cropped up.
Laura Hoptman, an assistant curator at the Modern who put Ms. Peyton's work into the three-person exhibition in the museum's "Projects" galleries for young artists, disagrees. "My argument is that this is radical painting," she said. "It's young and new and going somewhere."
Ms. Hoptman said that Ms. Peyton's work "is about fashion and beauty, and it's about love. And what's wrong with that? This is all about visual pleasure. These artists have said: 'So what, painting is dead. I'm going to do it anyway.' "
Ms. Peyton, who grew up in Brookfield, Conn., and attended the School of the Visual Arts in New York, dismisses these arguments as academic. "I paint because I want to," she said. "Paint can do things other things, like photos, can't do." For as long as she can remember, she has painted. She made her first oil painting when she was 11. Now she paints people she admires.
She nods in approval when her work is described as being about love and beauty but rolls her eyes when asked about the revival of painting and the resurgence of beauty in painting. "In art school, it's an issue, but it's not what I think about," she said. "I don't wake up in the morning to prove a point."
Usually Ms. Peyton wakes up and, after a swim, does "research," which to her means buying the records, magazines and books that provide inspiration. Like many painters today, she rarely paints from life; rather, she usually devises a composite image of her subject from many sources. The results sell for $2,000 and up. Charles Saatchi, the British advertising mogul whose art purchases were influential in the 1980's, recently bought her large portrait of a Polish rock singer.
"Her work, for me, is representative of the feeling you have when you don't want a song or movie to end," said Lynn Zelevansky, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who put Ms. Peyton's work into an exhibition on view there.
If there is any beauty in Mr. Tiravanija's art, made to be temporary and conceptual, it is in the idea. Ms. Hoptman, who also organized Mr. Tiravanija's exhibition at the Modern, which closed in early June, compared his work to Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, the urinals, snow shovels and other objects he called sculptures simply because he displayed them in a museum.
Mr. Tiravanija was born in Buenos Aires to Thai parents and seems to have been on the road ever since. He studied art in Canada, Chicago and New York and has exhibited widely in Europe, Asia, North America and South Africa.
How he works is unclear, and he ignored several phone messages and faxes requesting an interview. Critics say he aims to get people interested in the space or environment he has created and to engage their participation. The art gallery or museum shifts from being a place to view to being a place to do.
Mr. Brown, his dealer, said he showed Mr. Tiravanija's work because "he has an ambition I don't see anywhere else, to be as ambitious as he can be. 'Challenging' is an overused word in art, but he is willing to be as embarrassed and as inspiring as he can be at the same moment."
Ms. Spellman recounted how Mr. Tiravanija played the part of Thai chef at her 303 Gallery, doling out noodles in exchange for conversation. "The discussions that would develop are very interesting," Ms. Spellman said.
Critics in several respected art magazines have found Mr. Tiravanija's work beguiling and satisfying. Ms. Spellman said that while Mr. Tiravanija showed his work at 303, "his work always did well in terms of being collected." The prices range from $2,500 to $40,000. for which the buyers get remnants of his constructions or photographs of it.
Mr. Tiravanija's art differs from other participatory works, his fans said, because he lacks cynicism and rarely forces or manipulates participation by viewers. "Many artists work with social space, but he does it with a flair," said John Ravenol, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who has invited Mr. Tiravanija to exhibit there next year.
As diametrically opposed as Ms. Peyton and Mr. Tiravanija seem to be, their work does share a few things. Both deal in pop culture, both were strongly influenced by Andy Warhol and his use of commercial products in art, and both appropriate images from other sources, several curators and critics point out.
This being the art world, some insiders also have an academic view of the couple's work that casual observers might miss. Ronald Jones, chairman of the visual arts division of Columbia University's School of the Arts, said that Ms. Peyton and Mr. Tiravanija represented a shift to a new generation in the art world.
According to Mr. Jones, the work of artists like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who are in or approaching middle age, emphasized "that the way the media represented the world was a constructed fabrication." Ms. Peyton, Mr. Tiravanija and their peers, he says, "accepted this inauthenticity as a normal course of life, and they have begun to construct their work out of it."
While, for example, many in the previous generation rejected painting as a corrupt medium that could not advance art, Mr. Jones explained, Ms. Peyton "rehabilitated the traditional language of painting. She uses a conventional attitude, even a romantic one, to portray people who've become known through the media culture."
Mr. Tiravanija's choice of mediums is different but his view is somewhat parallel, Mr. Jones said. "He defeats inauthenticity by presenting an event that is what it is. He doesn't represent his projects as anything" other than what they are. Particularly with his food projects, however, he represents "the artist as a source of nourishment," Mr. Jones said.
It will be a long time before art historians pass judgment on interpretations like these, and only time will reveal whether Ms. Peyton's paintings and Mr. Tiravanija's environments have staying power. Neither artist would comment on the analyses. Fresh from their exhibitions at the Modern and contemplating coming engagements, they both seemed too busy to care.