Peter Doig, Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like?) 1996 Private Collection. © Peter Doig. Photo: courtesy Victoria Miro
Review - Peter Doig: showing at Tate Britain until April 27 2008.
This Peter Doig exhibition is one of a continuing series of ‘mid-career retrospectives’ hosted by Tate Britain. The aim is to create a fanfare around a leading contemporary artist whose public fame has so far been more of a squeak.
Doig’s relative anonymity in the public domain is baffling considering he won the prestigious John Moores Prize in 1993 for his work Blotter and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994. However, when considering the explosive impact his Brit-Art peers were making during this period, it becomes very clear why this figurative painter remained slightly in the shadows.
This exhibition at Tate Britain tracks the last two decades of Doig’s career following the completion of his MA at Chelsea School of Art. Although he was born and studied in Britain, his childhood was spent in Trinidad and later Canada. All have played key roles in his subject matter and influences.
This internationality has certainly had an effect on his schemes and modes of painting. His work derives not just from his surrounding environments, but also the social and cultural trends of each location. He is open about his influences, admitting there are clear parallels to be drawn with Van Gogh, and in his later works there are distinct signs of Hockney and Gauguin.
Peter Doig, Friday 13th 1999. Courtesy of Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin © The artist
There is much to be said for Doig’s need to recapture or recreate an image which he has seen, or which has already been captured. Many of his paintings evolve from photographs which he has taken, and from other sources such as postcards and film stills. Because of this, one could be forgiven for thinking that his paintings might have a rather third-party quality, yet his instinct for emotionally depicting these environments through paint allows his own voice to prevail.
The exhibition starts at a time where Doig ‘had just got back from Canada and was again searching for a subject. I started making these quite homely paintings, paintings of quite modest subjects’.
This reference to ‘modesty’ and ‘homely’ qualities is certainly reflected in works such as Hitch Hiker 1989-90, which depicts a lorry driving westwards on a dank evening. The subject matter and indeed the painting itself might easily be described as dull. Doig captures this dullness quite remarkably through his use of colour and application of paint, which hatches down the canvas like a low, heavy mist or shower of rain.
Peter Doig, Swamped 1990. Courtesy Victoria Miro © Peter Doig
The fact that he used old postal bags as his canvas adds to the outdoor graininess of the piece. Paintings such as this do not promote him as an exciting artist, yet there is an increasing boldness in his use of paint and colour and the scenes which he portrays seem to gather atmosphere.
Doig’s subject matter is almost exclusively focused on the outdoors. His only interior scene Briey (interior) 1999 is found within a series of works which depict Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation apartment building in Briey-en-forêt in France. These works exemplify his dedication and personal attachment to his subject. Doig was involved in a restoration project for the buildings in the 1990s helping to bring them back to life and usage, as they had lain derelict since 1973.
Such commitment to both his subjects and paintings is echoed throughout the exhibition. On several occasions he returns to his works, changing and adding to them. For paintings such as Pond Life 1993, the later addition of the reflection completes the work, bringing life and emotion to an otherwise serene vision. This can also be said of the decision to add another panel next to the already completed canvas Ski Jacket 1994.
Peter Doig, Bomb Island 1999. © The artist. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London
However an example where these late additions and changes seem to jar is notable in Gastof zur Muldentalsperre 2000 – 2. The decision to add figures seems to create an awkward break in what would have originally been a scenic view.
Peter Doig’s notoriety within the art world grew from paintings such as Ski Jacket and Blotter. His style of thick, luminous, atmospheric painting was becoming a recognisable trait. To continue his personal development as an artist he made a conscious decision to try and adapt his style and apply less paint, sticking to more formal blocks of colour.
Doig’s decision to hold back in his more recent works seems to draw the paintings of emotion and distance the viewer. It is almost as if he is tracking the evolution of painting through his oeuvre, this time giving a nod towards Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko.
Peter Doig, Concrete Cabin 1991/2. © The artist. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Whilst not having the same sensational qualities as some of the other ‘star’ artists of his generation, the fact that one can chart his style through some of the public’s favourite artists; and because of the intense visual headiness of the painting, there is no doubt that this exhibition of Peter Doig’s work will be a crowd pleaser.
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