Tuesday, 25 September 2007



(First published 5th September 2007)

Peter Doig’s paintings are widely admired but often seem baffling or tangential to wider trends. In recent years he has gradually departed from the themes and techniques that brought him notice in the 90s, has looked less certain, more remote. This post traces his brief development.

Initially the work deals in schematic or decorative landscapes, casual drawing and facture restraining more concrete depiction, maintaining a strict frontality to planes, in White Canoe (1990) the lake’s reflections add to the symmetry and design, in Grasshopper (1990) the lateral divisions are taken either as fence palings in the extreme foreground, framing the houses in the centre background, or distant and foreground waters. At this stage the pictures are remarkable only for simplified drawing and distinctive treatments assigned to planes. The works struggle or toy with a coherent level of stylisation and this is geared to the contrasting painterly treatments for parts.

The mosaic-like planes can recall Klimt or Schiele, an orientalism stripped of arabesque, but Doig’s technique is more diverse, his content less straightforward. As Doig accommodates more precise objects, the balance between design and content begins to resonate in a new and striking way. In works such as The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991) and Concrete Cabin West Side (1994) the play between foreground and background, abstraction and the concrete amplifies each. Paradoxically, it gives the places a peculiar accuracy, gives the stylised surrounding a sweeping indifference or ambiguity. We glimpse a resort or holiday homes, places visited, perhaps photographed or recorded but hardly known as more than a temporary address. And in this sense the paintings reflect something of photography’s personal uses, although hardly its means.

The paintings are about a certain kind of photograph and their occasions and for this reason critics were quick to bracket Doig with contemporary photo-based painting that similarly transcends Photo-realism, such as Gerhard Richter or Luc Tuymans. But even where such works are literally based on photographs, this does not explain Doig’s treatment. It is the genre of picture that is foremost (see also Posts 5, 6, 11 and 16) the vaguely known but fondly remembered picture, the holiday or special occasion snapshot, that Doig’s elaborate foregrounds frame or veil to filter for just this quality.

Doig’s interest in spatters, pourings, staining, pooling and drips all find service in delaying or concealing these times and places; are light, shadow, snow, water, forest or gravel at their most allusive and elusive. Winter forests are rendered in blunt and broken lines; make no attempt at more than a schematic cue. Where a Photo-realist or traditional kind might copy such photographs, the emphasis falls elsewhere. It is either about the properties of the print or the event irrespective of picture, but not, as in Doig, about using pictures for such events. Doig effectively stakes out a contemporary sublime, a landscape that is strange or remote, not so much for being uninhabited, but as exotic or glamorous for being merely transitory, known strictly on a recreational basis. Works like Night Fishing (1993) all but dissolve the central figures in a canoe, not into an impressionistic summer night, but a veil of technical vacillation, an obscurity to purpose or fuller engagement.

Doig’s best known works are the skiing milieu series from 1994-97. The snow-covered landscapes and elaborately costumed (essentially disguised) figures are in many ways his ideal subject. The landscape ‘whites out’ much of its features, meets Doig’s novel treatments and candy colours. Indeed the treatment of the brilliance of snow through pastel tints (perhaps inspired by ski goggles) or wishy washes provides another acute metaphor for the remembrance of things only half taken in.

Following works such as Buffalo Station I and II (1997) and Rainbow Wheel (1998-9) adopt a similar approach to colour, also rely upon brittle outline that recalls tracing and tends to invoke a photographic source (see also Post 13). But with the turn of the century Doig’s drawing and vigorous layers begin to relax. The buildings are less severe in presentation, less guarded, his line is broader, heavier, grows more remote from tracing or photograph. It is not clear what kind of places the artist now tours, how he pictures them, although in work such as 100 Years (Carrera) (2001) one senses the focus has begun to shift to the figure, as stereotype or stock role, drawn from the movies, art history or religion. While it would seem an inviting project, so far it is not served by Doig’s line, design or more conventional painting.

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