It takes a certain chutzpah for an artist to dig out his early student work and put it on display for the world to access, especially in a rarefied Mayfair Gallery hidden away in a gracious Georgian house just yards from Claridges Hotel. In the case of Peter Doig, such confidence may well be underwritten by the fact that his White Canoe – a dreamy painting of a boat reflected in a lake like some post-modern version of Charon’s craft – fetched the staggering sum of £5.7m in 2007 when put up for auction by Charles Saatchi.
Doig is something of an outsider. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, the son of a peripatetic shipping accountant, he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, then moved to Canada until he was nineteen, where he took up such northern rituals as skiing and ice hockey. After leaving for Londonto study painting at St. Martin’s, followed by an MA at the Chelsea College of Art, he supported himself as a dresser at the English National Opera and became absorbed in the emerging club scene frequented by the likes of performance artist Leigh Bowery and experimental film makers such as Isaac Julien. Chelsea College was a very different proposition, then, to Goldsmiths, the conceptual kindergarten that spawned Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst under the éminence grise Michael Craig Martin. It was full of painters still interested in the possibilities of what paint could do, despite the popular mantra that painting was a dead form. Doig was never allied to the conceptualist YBAs, or included in Saatchi’s watershed show Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997. And, unlike many of the YBAs, he continues to work alone, without a studio full of assistants. It doesn’t appeal to him be surrounded by people he has to keep busy; to become a production line. He likes the “simplicity” of paint; “the directness, the dabbling quality”; and still believes in the possibilities of being able to surprise and innovate in this most ancient of media. People are always asking him when he’s going to make a film. But he’s not interested. His outsider status has meant that like many émigrés, he responds best to places he knows when he is not actually there. Canada was painted whilst in London, the Caribbean from the vantage point of his Tribeca Studio.
His work is highly sought after and appears now in most major museum collections. But what makes him so popular? What is the magic mix? Well, partly, it’s that his work is beautiful and easy to comprehend – figures, dappled snowstorms, and forests evocative of Gauguin and Matisse – often stolen images that have spent years being re-arranged in his head or carried around in sketch books, before making it into the world in luminous seductive colour. There is about many of his works a hippy-trippy quality; creation through the lens of a dream. His works of the early 1990s rely heavily on Symbolists such as Edward Munch and Emil Nolde. Other sources are as diverse as Chagall, the Chicago Imagists and A.R. Penck. Doig is a sophisticated visual thinker who appropriates not only from abstraction and narrative painting but from photography and cinema. That he has now made his home in Trinidad has led some to describe him as a latter-day Gauguin: white man on the run from the corporate metropolis. But that’s not quite fair. Trinidad has presented a challenge. As Stéphane Aquin wrote in his essay to Doig’s recent exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, Doig understands Trinidad’s ‘post-colonial condition… ‘from the inside'”. Yet the question remains as to how a contemporary painter who acknowledges a debt to the expressiveness of modernism can create new work that is neither derivative nor kitsch? Doig often walks a knife edge between bravura and beauty. But there’s always the problem about his work as to whether Keats’ dictum that ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty’ holds. Certainly there is unabashed and luxuriant sensuality but at times this seems to be constructed and ersatz rather than ‘truthful’. This may be because he doesn’t paint from life and that unlike other so-called British greats of the 20th century – Freud and Auerbach for example – this creates is a distant between the artist and subject so that the result is more technical virtuosity than felt expression.
It is interesting, therefore, to find that his current pastoral oeuvres bear little resemblance to the work he did at the start of his career. Many of the 40 paintings from the mid-late 80s, when Doig was doing his bachelor’s degree and MA in London, on show at Michael Werner’s Gallery, are urban and metropolitan in contrast to the romantic landscapes that have established his reputation. New York is there in the nervy edgy lines of Sleepwalking, 1983 . A young woman seen from an aerial view point, paces the streets that are painted with raw, textured marks to denote the explosive energy of the city. It is there in Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom (the sublime) 1982, created through a mix of spraying, screening and pen-marking, where a large white car sits on top of the Chrysler building’s tall spire like some modernist religious relic.
In“I think it’s time…” 1982-1983 the city is picked out flatly in red, yellow and turquoise, and edged by a border of masks like an Egyptian frieze. While a cowboy appears in the foreground, a cigarette drooping from the corner of his lip.
Popular culture seeps from the pores of these paintings. Skyscrapers, burger bars and strippers abound. Doig, here, is an eclectic magpie with boundless cultural curiosity picking up things because they are shiny and appeal to his imagination. Cowboys are ubiquitous – Get off you High Horse, Roy Rogers, 1982. While Burger King, 1984 appropriates the motif of Hercules and the bull within a painting that has at its centre a black masked Tonto-like figure.
Doig’s habit of collaging images appropriated from a plethora of sources produces works that are enigmatic and ambivalent. But the effect can be alienating, closer to cartoon than to what is felt. That this is an artist interested in the physical qualities of paint, in its resilience and elasticity, is not in any doubt. To that degree he remains wedded to the modernist enterprise and its belief in materials, despite his eclectic subject matter. The only question is whether in this world of constructs he has anything really significant to say.
“At the Edge of Town”, 1986
Oil on canvas
59 3/4 x 83 3/4 inches
152 x 213 cm
“boom, boom, boom, boom (the sublime)”, 198
Oil on canvas
70 3/4 x 59 1/4 inches
180 x 150 cm
Oil on canvas
94 x 76 3/4 inches
239 x 195 cm
“Contemplating culture”, 1985
Oil on canvas
76 3/4 x 95 inches
195 x 241 cm
“I think it’s time…”, 1982-1983
Oil on canvas
71 x 93 3/4 inches
180.5 x 238 cm
All images are by Peter Doig courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London