The Art of Peter Doig

A modern painter of memories and cultural associations, with echoes of Chagall

Christopher P Jones
Feb 14 · 6 min read
Detail of ‘Spearfish (Red Moon)’, 2019, by Peter Doig. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Born in Edinburgh in 1959, Peter Doig is a painter who embraces accidents and chance encounters. “I always try to escape my mannerisms,” he said once.

Doig now lives and works in Trinidad in the Caribbean where he also spent some of his childhood. Memory and association play a large role in his work, as he moves between motifs of popular culture and references of local Trinidadian culture.

With Peter Doig — who recently displayed new paintings at the Michael Werner Gallery, London — corrosion is paramount. His paintings seek to overturn themselves from within, alluding to altered states, to dreams and hallucinations. His paint has become increasingly loose, curdled, and his lurid colour palette is intentionally sour. This is a vinegary type of beauty.

An artist from the Gerhard-Richter-school of found-imagery, using newspaper cuttings and film stills, Doig has drawn from such sources as Friday the 13th and Japanese ski brochures as the basis for his paintings. Yet so reworked are his sources that the originals become suppressed in a vision that skates a fine line between figuration and abstraction. The result is a murky narrative rooted in ambivalence. The human points of contact — solitary figures on glowing shorelines, sunbathers, lone divers — are carried over between paintings, so that recurring figures have the potential to undo one another’s meaning — cousins in paint fostering different motives.

Take the beach-bather who appears in two of the most prominent works in the exhibition. He looms large, a tall muscleman in old-fashioned bathing trunks, a colossus reminiscent of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. As a character, he has been lurking in the foreground of Doig’s work for several years now.

Bather (Night Wave), 2019, by Peter Doig. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

In fact, the image is based on an old photograph of the 1950s actor Robert Mitchum posing on a beach during filming in Trinidad. In Bather (Night Wave) (2019), the bather stands against an acid-orange beach. The sea is white and foaming; the sky is black with a sickle moon. The bather’s face is an obliteration of misty paint, as if his whole sensory apparatus has melted in the warm coastal evening. He is rubbing his hands together in a self-conscious, self-satisfied gesture; in the background a naked woman lies across the orange sand in what appears to be post- (or pre-) coital languor.

These paintings rise up undaunted, at ease with themselves. Their provocation is not aggressive but probing, experimental in their meaning. Like all of Doig’s work, they are never over-eager, neither to please or to reveal their ethics too quickly.

Spearfish (Red Moon), 2019, by Peter Doig. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Doig’s art has long been interested in the meeting place between the terrestrial and the aquatic, where riverbanks and shorelines stand as frontiers of comfortable human existence — beyond which only the exotic or unhinged dare to venture. Spearfish (Red Moon) (2019) shows an armed diver in a green boat, accompanied, incongruently, by a woman in a yellow raincoat. These discordant elements are further exacerbated by the red leaves that hang above the figures like pregnant orbs of fruit and the gloomy purple mountains in the distance. What looks like a lake, in blue-mauve behind, is set against the orange of the fisherman’s outfit.

As with many of Doig’s works, the painting is made up of bands of colour which may be a natural function of landscape painting but also something Doig turns into a painterly opportunity. “I like the idea,” Doig has said previously, “that maybe these sections which had opened up to reveal a strip of existence could just as easily close down again.”

Night Bathers, 2019, by Peter Doig. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

As the common themes accrue, a pleasing sense of narrative builds between the works. In Night Bathers (2019) a woman in an ornate bathing costume reclines on a beach beneath a full moon, upon a swathe of sand that hums with tones of ghostly-lemon and lunar-white. Why people might choose to moon-bathe is not disclosed, but whatever is ominous is also attractive in this painting, a discomforting allure that cultivates an even spread of pleasure and apprehension.

The paintings on display here are nearly all large, some as tall or wide as three metres. The gallery is split between two floors and the works are arranged into two broad parts: sunlit paintings upstairs, moonlit downstairs.

Lion in the Road (Sailors), 2019, by Peter Doig. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

In one of the more beguiling works on display, Lion in the Road (Sailors) (2019), a lion sits within a rusticated stone frame. The frame itself hovers across a street in Trinidad in front of the prison in Port of Spain. The iconography of the lion — king of the beasts — may point to anything from the personification of Africa to the zodiacal sign of Leo. For Jungians, the lion combines tremendous energy with serene self-control. Doig seems to be relating the framed lion to the plight of the prisoners in the jail, yet like all the allegories at work here, the exact meaning is enigmatic.

Much of Doig’s ambiguity is achieved through the irregular and unregulated painted surface. The paint is thinned so that surface and tone degrade into one another like a collapsing wave. Sometimes you can see erased figures beneath the paint, a change of mind that the artist has done little to disguise.

Music (2 Trees), 2019, by Peter Doig. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Traces of Doig’s influences are evident too: in Music (2 Trees) 2019, a pair of guitar playing balladeers tune-up their instruments as a woman passes by on horseback. As a dreamscape with musicians and animals, along with the painterly effects and the oblique composition, it is vividly reminiscent of Marc Chagall.

And much like Chagall, Doig’s vision captures romantic reverie as well as material deterioration. Moons glow and landscapes erode. Clawing at the psychological crevices left by the residue of popular culture, through the half-forgotten simulacrum of media imagery, these paintings are wonderful evocations of the dissolved line between mythology and kitsch.

This is a revised essay that first appeared in Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/peter-doig-paintings/

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

Christopher P Jones

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Art historian, writer, artist. Interested in fact, fiction and culture. Website chrisjoneswrites.co.uk

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