BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Peter Doig

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

The catalogue for Peter Doig's show includes an irreverent appendix comprising an unedited list of his record collection. It's always puzzling to visit the homes of extremely sophisticated contemporary artists (or art collectors), and discover that their taste in music consists of uninformed wank. But Doig's taste is not wank: his is a medium-cool collection - no MOR, Marks-and-Spencer rock like U2 or Sting, but an eclectic mix of classic and left-field rock with a high percentage of indie material.

That Doig should catalogue his collection at all, however, is more significant than the music itself. Lists are a teen culture thing - gratuitous compilations of all-time fave bands, or current fave titles cropping up on noticeboards in indie music/skateboard shops or Internet music newsgroups. Making these lists is an exposure of aesthetic sensibility that both makes vulnerable and securely bonds the compiler within the safe codes of a sub-group (Doig might possibly be very appreciative were visitors to his show to send him lists of their own record collections). The group referred to by Doig is a young, slightly left-field one, in which the larger, indoor, trash TV/drugs/rock subgroup is melded with the smaller, natural outdoors, surf/skateboard/snowboard indie music culture.

Doig's background is Canadian; the mountains and conifers of his country become the painted landscape backdrops of his paintings. An emphatic contrast is quiveringly created between the respectful sincerity engendered by big nature - snow, trees, mountains, sky - and other more cynical interests such as lurid drug experiences, cliché, bad taste, horror films and incongruous concrete Modernist architecture.

These are situated within a style that, like many of the album covers in his record collection - especially the indie ones - lovingly parody bad painting and illustration, and are counter-culture ironic. Doig's works look like sugary greetings cards, obsessive amateur paintings, pictures by foot and mouth artists, illustrations from 60s children's books, or utopian architectural drawings of the 70s.

Sustaining this bundle of references is the massive scale and physicality of the paintings, and Doig's strategic positioning of his audience to greet the unfamiliar face of naked sincerity offered to them. The large canvas surfaces are thickly impastoed with squittered and irregularly raised blobular bumps of paint, whose representations appear somehow modest in spite of their scale - there's no demonstratively fluent paint handling. And by couching his work in the familiar language of rejection, ridicule, menace, memory, parody and irony, Doig provides recognisable codes to reassure us that we will not be overly embarrassed by his sincerity when he slips it over on us. The resultant conviction, made possible by this, displaces our awareness of the artist's strategic guile. In this way Doig traverses the hyperspace of sarcastic irony, and enters a strange inverse dimension where it perhaps becomes possible truly to love the offending thing itself, and the ironic principle evaporates. It's more common to come across this strange love principle operating at its furthest degree in contemporary music - Tricky, Portishead, Björk - than it is in the fine arts.

Young Bean Farmer (1991) combines a convincing poetic sensibility with the trash-drama of a film still or a greetings card from an Oxfam shop. A sparse, minutely painted child is seen running in an evocative landscape, the figure floating against the ground. The child is depicted with a sincerity towards the human status in nature that is reminiscent of Van Gogh or Millet. The important central part of the canvas, however, is occupied by a malevolent, large, dark post that supports a repressive barbed-wire fence receding into the distance.

Figure in Mountain Landscape (1997), painted with retinal, psychotic colours brings to mind the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It shares with certain works by Van Gogh a hallucinatory quality that is favoured by drug cultists, and the tradition of druggy art heroes such as Louis Wain and Samuel Palmer can be seen elsewhere in Doig's work.

The uncontrolled hallucinatory freefall of the psychedelic area of Figure... is contained within the prosaic contours of the figure's hooded jacket. Whether intended by the artist or not, this is as good a metaphor as any for the psychic energy of youth, and youth's testing of its containment within imposed boundaries. Borders, edges and natural and unnatural demarcations, or the conspicuous absence of them, occur within Doig's work as traditional signifiers of psychic freedom or imprisonment.

Doig's are the pictures that Holden Caulfield from Salinger's The Catcher in The Rye would paint if he were a painter. Caulfield's emphatic, italicised exclamations against the phoney in the adult world, and his deeply vulnerable sensitivity at core, are shared with Doig: both have in common a pristine adolescent world view, with its potential of both expansive joy and alienated collapse.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.