Peter Doig is the highest valued living European painter. And I have a feeling why. His canvases at Michael Werner Gallery's recent TUMESCENCE show were totally enchanting, with their color, form, style, subject matter, and contemporary references that reminded me of Bonnard and Gauguin. Curious to learn more about Doig, who lives in Trinidad but often travels to London, New York, and Dusseldorf, I leapt at the chance to ask him about his paintings now showing in Early Works at Michael Werner.
Alexandre Stipanovich: In your paintings Contemplating Culture and Red Sienna, what's the relationship between the characters in the foreground and the city they're contemplating?
Peter Doig: There is no real relation between the figures and the city. The figures are based on two marble statues surrounding Marmi stadium in Rome's Foro Italico (formerly Foro Mussolini). There are 60 huge statues; each is sponsored by an Italian province and depicts a different sport. When I visited the stadium in 1983, I was struck by the scale of the figures, how they displayed their bold masculinity, and the way they seem to confront each other aggressively. I wanted to animate this further in the paintings by reenacting the biblical story of St. Sebastian. I used the Marmi figure representing archery to fire the arrows. I chose Siena rather than Rome as the setting because I liked its scale and the buildings—the Duomo and the tower at the Piazza del Campo.
Some of your early paintings shown here depict a saturated, hysterical city that constrasts with your island paintings of silent, mysterious forests and beaches. Can you elaborate on these two distinct energies in your work?
The paintings in this exhibition were made in the 80s. It was such a different time in my life; I was in my early to mid-20s then, whereas the island works were made from the age of 40 onwards. When I was making the early paintings, I was absorbing all that I saw and experienced, and regurgitating it into my paintings, with almost no filter. I had little regard for materials, in the sense that I urgently needed to make things with whatever was at hand. I did not have an interest in making a "good" painting, but more a need to get the imagery down. Later on, I became more interested in painting and paint––the materiality of it, its possibilities, et cetera. And because of this, I slowed down a bit. I started to look at other peoples' paintings as a source of inspiration, rather than only looking and taking from the world outside of "Painting." I came to realize that sometimes, it takes more confidence to make a quiet painting than a loud one.
How do your drawings in the last room of the show relate to the other paintings?
Well maybe the drawings and works on paper are the real work. They are so revealing of my mindset at the time, and maybe the sketchbooks even more so. All the paintings begin in drawings or work on paper. I made paper works for 15 years or so before I ever showed one. I have to say, it's the aspect of other artists' work that I often enjoy the most.
They have to be the foundation of the later works—no one invents themselves from scratch. Well, come to think of it... I think that the inspiration has remained the same because the narratives are all rooted in things that were experienced and then transformed into images. I selected the works on paper and paintings from 1983 (the last year of my studies at Saint Martins) through 1988 (when my work began to shift into a new direction, like landscapes, et cetera).
In your work, I see influences of Bonnard's love of intimacy and Gauguin's love of exploring new cultures and landscapes. Would you agree?
Yes, I like both of these artists for their attention to detail and also their expertise in making a big picture that's rarely large. They were both masters of intimate scale and givers of other worlds.
What do you prefer to work from: a photograph (often your own) or reality?
Actually, I rarely work from a stand-alone photograph, I usually work from bits of photographs. Photos are a useful tool; they're static and can be held in the hand, torn up, stretched––which is harder to do with reality.