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Scottish painter Peter Doig (b.1959) is one of the most compelling and provocative of contemporary artists; fascinated with the processes of painting, he is also deeply engaged in the history of art. A sophisticated colourist in the tradition of Matisse, Bonnard and Gauguin, he draws inspiration from such diverse sources as cinema, photographs, postcards, travel posters, advertising images, the architecture of Le Corbusier and the paintings of Hockney, Courbet and Velazquez. Layering his images to create eerie, anxious, dream-like works, Doig depicts isolated human figures in vivid, exotic surroundings. Poised between figuration and abstraction his paintings exude an uncanny sense of melancholy, whether set in the barren landscapes of rural Canada where he was raised, the vibrant jungles of Trinidad where he now spends much of his time, or the gritty urban backdrops of modern life.
Doig’s most well-known image is probably that of a lone canoeist, an image which he explored in many variations, from the night-time figure of Spearfishing (2013), through the eerie swamps of Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) (2004), to the perilous open waters of the bearded canoeist in 100 Years Ago. Doig sees the canoe as a symbol of freedom; fashioned from nature in the form of tree bark or animal skins, slipping silently through the water, this primitive but elegant craft is for him ‘almost like the perfect form’. Cabins are another favourite motif, from The House that Jacques Built (1992), glimpsed through a colourful grid of fences and foliage, through the murky forms of Music of the Future (2002), depicting reflections in a lake at night, to the haunting loneliness of Young Bean Farmer (1991) where sower like that in Jean-François Millet’s The Sower (1850) casts his seeds before a cabin on an empty plain.
In the early 1990s Doig experimented with the colour white in a series of works which evoke the blurring, obliterating, effect of snow. As Doig explains, these are not simply paintings of winter, but an attempt to depict ‘what it means to be inside your own head’. Here veils of white wipe out sections of the image, leaving the viewer perplexed as to setting and subject. The most evocative of these is probably Blotter (1993), whichdepicts a young man gazing at his own reflection in a melting pond. The title indicates some of the richness of the theme; at one level the figure is being blotted out by the surrounding white of winter; at another the figure is an insignificant blot in the forest. At a more personal level, however, as Doig explains in the conversation, the blot recalls the perception-altering LSD he took as a teenager, which arrived on a page of blotting paper.
Reflections, refractions, grids and screens feature prominently in Doig’s work, flattening the picture surface, suggesting windows or walls, acting variously as barriers or openings, leading the audience in or obstructing their view. In more recent works Doig has experimented with ghostly creatures – part shaman, part animal, part human – created by building up thin layers of paint. These mark a dramatic departure from the lone figures who people his earlier works, like the Daumier-like flaneur in Metropolitan (2004), taking in the street scene as he idles on a corner, or the mysterious hunter dragging his dead catch through the jungle in Pelican (2003), or the compelling drunk in Stag (2002), a Christ-like savant sporting a golden nimbus against the looming darkness.
As one of today’s most intelligent and mysterious artists Doig is constantly experimenting, constantly evolving. With its impressive collection of recent prints and paintings, this exhibition – and the attendant catalogue – provides a wonderful introduction to Doig’s work, while, for the cognoscenti, it offers a chance to explore Doig’s working method from initial experimentation to finished canvas.
This book is the catalogue is for the exhibition of Peter Doig’s work currently running at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland (until 22 March 2015) then moving to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (17 April to 17 August 2015). Focusing on Doig’s work since 1989, this is first exhibition to present his experimental prints along with the final paintings they inspired. Besides the beautifully produced plates, the catalogue offers an essay examining Doig’s working methods, influences, themes and motifs, plus a conversation with Doig at his London studios exploring the importance of printmaking in his artistic process.
The catalogue, Peter Doig, edited by Ulf Kuster, is published by Hatje Cantz, 2014. 176pp., 177 colour and mono illus, €49.80. ISBN 978-3-7757-3869-9