Peter Doig’s ‘No Foreign Lands’, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in North America (co-produced with the National Galleries of Scotland, where it recently ended a three-month stint at the Scottish National Gallery) was nothing short of masterful. Forty of his paintings and a full raft of works on paper held the exhibition halls of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ oldest and grandest building with astonishing ease and gravitas.
Here, Doig establishes his reputation as a latter-day Patrick Lafcadio Hearn of painting. Hearn was a writer who travelled widely and was obsessed with hauntings, and Doig shares those traits as well as a peculiar ability to soak up all the particularities of place, and sweat them out in
painting. An itinerant traveller at heart, Doig makes paintings that are replete with nomadic ghosts. (The title of the exhibition derives, somewhat ironically, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s statement: ‘There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.’) Doig channels the ghosts of his artistic forebears with unusual fluidity and flagrant daring: Pierre Bonnard, Honoré Daumier, Paul Gauguin, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse, David Milne, Tom Thomson, James Wilson Morrice and many others.
Interestingly, Doig is a dyed-in-the-wool Montrealer (having spent the better part of his teens and early 20s here). It was to Montreal that he emigrated in 1966 with his mother and father, a Sri Lankan-born Scots accountant, from Trinidad, which had been the family’s home since 1960. Later, they moved to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Doig became an expert skier, skater and fanatical hockey fan. (Even given the recent embarrassing travails of Montreal’s hockey team, Les Canadiens, the game remains his ruling passion, after painting, that is.)
However, this exhibition was devoted to Doig’s output since he returned to Trinidad in 2000 for an artist residency, settling there once again in 2002. The people in his Trinidad paintings are largely spectral presences – for instance, the watery phantasms in Figures in Red Boat (2005–07), the translucent figure standing in the background of Paragon (2006) or in the foreground of Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006–12). And in Mal d’Estomac (Stomach Ache, 2008) he seems to be channelling the restless ghost of Philip Guston’s late work. Even Ping Pong (2006–08) haunts us with its eerie and disturbing reminder of the Windows 8 user interface.
In Trinidad, Doig started to paint directly from observation of its land, flora and seascapes, but also integrated at will figures from his huge archive of images. For instance, the man portrayed as the Walking Figure by Pool (2011) is based on a photograph of the Dada artist Francis Picabia. Doig’s imagery, wilfully and wildly eclectic, runs the gamut from the ubiquitous canoe (a subject that he has been painting for 25 years, depicting it traversing sundry Canadian lakes as well as the deep waters off the coast of Trinidad), to the signature pelican and those shadowy human figures, silent voyeurs, who populate these paintings as though they are standing, like lonely sentinels, on the threshold of eternity. Doig’s islands are compelling, as is the case with Pelican Island (2006); they seem to exist outside both geography and time.
Doig is, above all, a wily and capacious scavenger: Gauguin’s Tahitian idylls, the colourful enigmas of the post-Fauve Matisse, nightmarish Abu Ghraib photographs, Milne’s luminous landscapes, Wilson Morrice’s beach scenes, Rousseau’s jungles, late Guston, Rothko, whomever. Doig joins at the hip all manner of polarities and contrarieties: individual memory and unconscious collective memory, past and present, presence and absence.
Lately, Doig has progressively moved away from work that flirted with the fetishization of its own pigment-based materiality. Instead, his painting’s have become more open, porous and fluid – almost oneiric and oceanic in their mien. As the works in this exhibition show, both his understandable hubris and his imagery continue to entice and insistently haunt.