in Features | 04 SEP 92
Featured in
Issue 6

Weird places, Strange folk

The ghostly memories and references of Peter Doig

in Features | 04 SEP 92

A farmer walks out purposefully across his field. Two deer pose at a water's edge, lit by a gory sunset. Some figures move through a wintery landscape - their destination an upmarket log cabin. This crude description of three paintings by Peter Doig should be sufficient to indicate the unusual character of his work. Surprise gives way to fascination as it becomes clear that these scenes are depicted without irony; they are for real. Large scale figurative oil painting does, occasionally, deliver the kind of jolt commonly associated with more esoteric media. When it does, the conservative fancy themselves vindicated, while the radical screams betrayal, each unconsciously confirming an idea of art predicated on appearances. For his part, Doig explains with characteristic understatement that 'you see so much modern art that looks like modern art.'

So many of the paintings are of Canada, but in a way l want it to be more of an imaginary place - a place that's somehow a wilderness

Which is not to imply that these paintings are created as a reaction against some notion of dominant taste. Doig, as the cliche commonly runs, has been painting for years and would balk at the thought of working in such an instrumental manner. Although his art is implicated in a whole network of cultural references, its sources remain personal above all else. It is this, rather than the vicissitudes of style, that delivers the jolt.

Peter Doig was born 33 years ago in Scotland, but grew up in French-speaking Quebec. In 1979 he came to London to study art, and stayed on. For years he has lived in one of the most relentlessly urban areas of the city, within earshot of a hissing gas works. When asked whether the sunsets and snow-storms of his paintings are escapist, he replies, 'I don't think I'm a realist.'

The world that Doig creates in his work is composed in large part from memories of the Canadian landscape he knew as a child, but he pushes away from too specific a reading: 'So many of the paintings are of Canada, but in a way l want it to be more of an imaginary place - a place that's somehow a wilderness.' If on one level that sounds implausibly dreamy, it connects on another with an important strand in North American culture: a yearning for space that corresponds to an idea of freedom.

In unlikely fashion, The Hitch-hiker combines the romanticism of a road movie such as Easy Rider with the Romantic landscape tradition of Northern Europe, exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich. A tiny articulated lorry, head-lights fullbeam, makes its way across a stormy landscape. The composition echoes Friedrich's Monk by the Seashore, and the compositional debt to that painting inevitably brings emotional baggage. But here the tone is more dead-pan; the lorry is painted in a kind of Yankee plain style, straightforward and illustrative, while the hitch-hiker in question is nowhere to be seen - probably down a ditch. Doig insists that the lorry is travelling from East to West, with all that implies for a North American: 'One thinks of West as space.' In its mixture of sources both high and low, and its laconic romanticism, the painting is an introduction to the work of the last two years.

Roadhouse is one of a series of canvases in which a bleak mental landscape - abandoned buildings, telegraph wires, lowering skies - is sandwiched between abstract panels which function as surrogate sky and ground. The arrangement was inspired by the words of a 19th Century settler in Canada's western prairies, quoted in a book on ice-hockey: 'Man is a grasshopper here, a mere insect making way between the enormous discs of heaven and earth.' The panels at top and bottom are given over to painting, and the former is punctuated by areas of white that look like hasty repairs to the surface. The artist remembers seeing a decaying mural of a hunting scene in a bar, its pocked surface patched with blobs of plaster. Some of these blobs have moved down into the central landscape panel where they function as both clouds and paint, initiating a dialogue between the abstract and figurative that reappears throughout the work. The apparent desolation of another painting from the series, The House that Jacques Built, is tempered by Doig's wayward humour, but an air of melancholy remains; a house shouldn't look like this.

Images of home recur frequently in this work, hinting at a feeling of displacement. In Rosedale a large Federal style house lies partially obscured among a cluster of trees that blocks the way. White dots of falling snow have formed into horizontal bands which further obscure the image, and recall the 'snow' caused by freezing a frame on a videotape. Rosedale is an exclusive residential area in Toronto, where families have built homes in a protective wooded ravine; the trees provide cover, but not so much as to rule out a display of ostentation. The title recalls the most famous flashback in the history of cinema - the snowdom a sequence in Citizen Kane, where the bloated protagonist of the film utters the word 'Rosebud' and is transported from his deathbed back to a moment of snowy innocence. As in the frozen frame of a video, where the still image never quite conveys what the succession of moving images intended, Rosedale has the incomplete quality of a memory, or of something that can only be partially articulated. It is inevitably short-changed by words.

If Doig is in flight from anything, it seems to be the specificity that can kill a painting

Most of these paintings are based on photographic sources that correspond to a mental image. Doig feels that the result of working from memory alone would be too whimsical and seeks out photos that will act as intermediaries for the scenes in his head. Translating them into paintings involves a substantial gamble: he admits with glee that it can all go horribly wrong. But when he succeeds the results transcend the aleatory quality of the photograph, justifying the painting.
The Young Bean Farmer is derived from a photo found in an old copy of National Geographic, and the finished painting retains something of the ineluctable optimism of that journal. For once the landscape seems reasonably accommodating: a whitewashed farm, a fertile-looking field, a tracery of branches that recalls hiding out in hedgerow. As before, there is a feeling of 'looking through' into the painting that mirrors looking back on a scene mentally, with all the distortion that implies. A hastily sketched figure walks across the middle distance. 'The Bean Farmer was a guy at school who used to sell speed. The painting was meant to be a portrait of this character, but it was also about someone leaving somewhere. A small figure, a shadow of a person really. It looks like he's going and he's not coming back.'

It is hard not to read an autobiographical significance into this last remark, and between the security of Rosedale and the horizon-hungry Bean Farmer there perhaps lies the ambivalence felt by a voluntary exile toward his home-land: an attraction to what has been left behind, a recollection of the original reasons for leaving. But if Doig is in flight from anything, it seems to be the specificity that can kill a painting. He often refers to Edward Hopper, whose views of the American scene, pared down to the point of boredom, possess the strength of the generic. Home becomes a condition rather than a place in this work, and a more abstract involvement with architecture develops.The names of Whistler, Wyeth and Limt are invoked in good faith. Any shock value is accidental - a symptom of a wider boredom.

Le Corbusier described one of his most famous buildings, the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, as both 'a perfect receptacle for the family' and 'a magisterial work of architecture, the product of rigour grandeur, nobility, happiness and elegance.' One of his least known buildings is an almost identical structure located in a remote forest in North Eastern France. Seen from a distance it rises absurdly from the trees, like a monument to a forgotten faith in the future. Seen from within the forest, it is the subject of Doig's Concrete Cabin paintings, in which the rigid geometry of the architecture shines through a dense web of trees.In Concrete Cabin // the building glows like a self-evident fact, and even if it inspires a whole range of possible 'readings', from Henry David Thoreau to the International Style, it alludes most strongly to a pair of eyes and a capacity for wonder. Doig has a fantasy about life in Medieval times, when vast tracts of land were covered by trees, and a journeying pilgrim might regard a trek through the woods as a voyage into the unknown. Corbusier's building is transformed into the light source of a primeval forest.

To one degree or another, all these paintings court risk, walking a fine line between attraction and repulsion. This might occur on a formal level when Doig mounts one of his periodic campaigns against the merely tasteful, but it is central also to the emotional tenor of the work. He offers by way of an explanation a description of a performance he had seen by British dancer Michael Clark. Well known for working in a post-Punk genre, Clark had at one point performed to Send in the Clowns, one of the most saccharine moments in the history of musical theatre: 'It is such a drippy song, but the way it had been used, with what was happening on stage, made it really very poignant. In a way I'm interested in that; when you can find something that is romantic and does have that element but somehow give it a certain poignancy - without just falling into pieces of sickliness.' In a painting like Baked, with its over-ripe ocean sunset, Doig seems intent on finding out how far he can go before his private wilderness flips over into kitsch, emotional or otherwise. Kitsch itself is of no interest.

That said, he takes his inspiration where he finds it. Friday the I3th is a routine horror film; a slit throat here, an axe in the head there. It ends, however, with an extraordinary dream sequence in which a slumped body floats in a canoe across the mirror-like surface of a lake. In Swamped this scene is transformed into a lugugubrious twilight world - a transformation that indicates how a given referent is only a starting point for a work, rather than an end in itself. What began with a horror film ends up nearer to Arnold Bocklin's The Isle of the Dead. According to Doig, 'A painting has to have a lot of references.'

Bocklin's name might recall a moment early in the last decade when British painting dived into an orgy of lyricism, when weeping knights trundled across cypress strewn landscapes, to the sound of applause. At the time, while still a student, Doig painted his own vision of the sublime: a car teetering on top of a skyscraper above New York City. His work remains aggressively outside of the main-stream. Physically large, rarely less than 2 x 2.5 metres, New paintings are also broad in terms of their inclusiveness, resisting the artificial closures of concept and process that have since replaced the weeping knights or the British scene. He admires the work of Paterson Ewen, a Canadian landscapist who paints the weather as if he were reading it. He also looks at the artists of the Group of Seven, painters of the Canadian landscape in the early decades of the century.

Iron Hill could be Doig's most problematic work in terms of the expectations of a contemporary art audience. A vast rural landscape painted with a naive flattened perspective; dotted with trees and farms; covered with a veil of peach coloured snow. Of all the paintings it looks the most like a childhood memory, generating an air of nostalgia; but for the artist the painting operates on other levels also: 'I find it strange that the mood of this painting is something one might long for. In a way l wanted to paint the hermit's retreat, the person who never opens their blinds. Iron Hill is very poor rural Quebec, almost hillbilly; all the houses are in terrible disrepair.' Perhaps this denial of what seems so evident again reveals the influence of Hopper, who always claimed he was only painting sunlight on the side of houses, while everyone else saw misery, despair and alienation.

Nevertheless, Iron Hill is based on a specific memory of a particular place that carries associations for the artist. Why else would this affront to contemporary sensibilities have travelled through time to find us? It is powerful because it seems to express something of importance to the person who made it. It demands attention because it conveys the liberation of 'tapping into something that is personal rather than anything else.'