It is being billed as a homecoming: the first major retrospective for the Scottish painter Peter Doig in the city where he was born in 1959. Yet few artists are less rooted than Doig, who moved to Trinidad when he was two, before growing up in Canada. After shuttling in adulthood between London and Canada, in 2002 he moved back to Trinidad, where he still lives.
Aside from its apt title, which borrows from Robert Louis Stevenson (“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”), there is nothing remotely Caledonian about Doig’s exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery: no vistas of Arthur’s Seat or visions of stags cantering through rousing Highland glens. Instead we find steamy, tropical pictures of sinister spirits emerging from shadowy jungle thickets, people playing cricket in heat-scorched orange landscapes, and solitary beachcombers trailing dead pelicans beside the surf as palm trees tremble overhead. With the exception of Gauguin, the French stockbroker who plunged into Tahiti with whom Doig is frequently compared, there are few artists it makes less sense to consider through the filter of their national identity.
Unlike his midcareer retrospective at Tate Britain in 2008, No Foreign Lands concentrates on work from the past decade or so since Doig has lived in the Caribbean, and includes a number of fresh paintings. There is no question that the sticky climate, coupled with the island’s folklore, has transformed his approach.
Doig made his name in the Nineties with a series of faux-naive canvases that now sell for millions of pounds. His application of paint was thick, almost sickly: pellets of pigment studded the ground like blobs of chewing gum stuck on a pavement. The psychedelic effect was often described as “hallucinogenic”. For me, his encrusted pictures were more like gingerbread houses, decorated with candies and sparkles.
The exhibition in Edinburgh contains a transitional work called Driftwood (2001-02), which has vestiges of the artist’s old love affair with impasto. Elsewhere, though, the paint is generally hazy and thin, sometimes to the point of disappearance. In one memorably gigantic picture, Man Dressed as Bat (2007), a spectral presence with outstretched wings (part carnival performer, part obi sorcerer) occupies some immaterial dimension like a half-lit nightmare slowly appearing before our eyes. In Black Curtain (Towards Monkey Island) (2004), Doig paints a translucent curtain quivering before a sea view as though it is a metaphor for his new fluid, gauzy style. The image has the diaphanous texture of a dream.
Sea Moss (2004) is the pictorial equivalent of a ghost town: drained of colour, which has bled into the support, it consists of nothing but a few delicate grey-brown strokes representing palm trees in a landscape, like a wistful, half-remembered approximation of another painting altogether.
Everything feels liquid and woozy, full of clammy drips and sodden passages like pools of sweat, as though the paint has not yet dried — indeed, Doig was still working on the most recent pictures just days before the press view.
Since seeing this exhibition, I have caught myself thinking about it a lot.
It contains paintings that I loathe because of their aggressive flatness, or because of their clashing colours that grate like fingernails on a blackboard. But Doig is an artist who takes risks: in Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) (2004), for instance, he uses matt silver paint for the sky above the jungle — an unexpected but brilliant expression of noonday heat.
Often he is in dialogue with the Post-Impressionist and Modernist greats: Gauguin, obviously (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek way), but also Matisse, whose Bathers with a Turtle (1907-08), with its banded background, unsettling atmosphere, and monumental scale, has clearly become a touchstone for Doig.
I left the Scottish National Gallery convinced that, like his illustrious forebears, Doig is a serious painter, capable of darkly powerful visual poetry that lingers in the imagination.
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