An exhibition entitled Early Works suggests that we should view the work on show not simply in terms of what’s in front of us, but rather in terms of the later works that are not there. In Doig’s case the ones that he painted immediately after the period covered by this show (the mid-to-late 1980s) – among them White Canoe (1991), which sold at auction for $11.7 million in 2007 and The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), which went for $12 million last year – and led to him being nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994 and international acclaim in the years that followed. So, as we pass through this collection of around 40 drawings and paintings, we’re supposed to look for clues and hints of the later brilliance and construct a narrative or timeline that leads to its blossoming (which, here, comes in the form of At the Edge of Town (1986-8), a painting showing a figure emerging onto the kind of semiabstracted landscape for which Doig is best known).
The majority of the works on show were made during the period in which Doig was in London (although frequently travelling to New York), studying at Central St Martins. And there are fair few student concerns in evidence, among them the importance of fast food (most of these scenes are decidedly urban) – that of the Chinese, Burger King, and kebab-shop provide the subject matter for a number of works – sex – among these, ink drawings of strippers, Chez Paree 3 (1986) and cunnilingus, M. Courbet (1984) – and personal grooming – Uneasy (1984) is a small, comic drawing offering profile and bird’s-eye analysis of the artist’s worrying hair loss.
At the same time the works offer a wide spray of artistic concerns with nods to Basquiat, Pollock, Haring, Courbet, Cézanne, a bit of German Junge Wilde paintings as well as classical painting and sculpture – a bird’s-eye view of art history as it spreads near and far, on either side of the Atlantic and at opposite ends of time. The large painting Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom (The Sublime) (1982), for example, offers an awkward bird’s-eye view of Manhattan featuring a floating white car almost collaged on top of the spire of the Chrysler Building, the sky rendered in a manner evoking Pollock, the city in a manner loosely reminiscent of Haring. And while the whole, like many of the paintings on show here, feels a little overblown (perhaps even indecisive), there’s something quite liberating – even fun – in the excited range of references on show. Indeed, many of the works look like the 1980s – brightly coloured, with flying cars and a fetish for dressing up. Not the pressures of high prices and the art market, but the influences of everything that’s going on around the artist in art and in life. It’s not Peter Doig at his best, but perhaps it’s precisely because this is not the Doig we know – reminding us that artists are not fixed in place or style – that makes this show so entertaining.