I’ve always loved the Beyeler Foundation’s building. Embedded in the Basel suburb of Riehen, the structure itself, designed by Renzo Piano, is a beautiful coming-together of porphyry-covered walls, a glass roof and a glazed façade looking out onto the corn fields and vines covering the Tüllinger Hills. This altogether painterly synthesis of nature, concrete and art always reminds me of two particular works: Caio Reisewitz’s Casa Canoas, a photomontage that depicts the glass-walled house on the outskirts of Rio built by Oscar Niemeyer for himself, which disappears amidst the lush vegetation (some real, some collaged) that presses in on all sides; and Peter Doig Concrete Cabin II, a 1992 painting that portrays another signature building by a different master of Modernism, Le Corbusier. The latter building – known as the “Unité d’Habitation” apartments, in Briey-en-Forêt – was conceived of as an ideal living space, but soon fell into disrepair and was derelict by 1973.
In the early 1990s, Doig used a handheld video camera to record the disorienting experience of moving through the surrounding woods towards Le Corbusier’s building, and worked from the still images that he captured to produce a painting where the architecture appears and disappears within the screen of branches. In both Reisewitz’s and Doig’s work, we witness a mutual invasion: the buildings reach out to embrace the forest but the trees fight back, ultimately conquering the inside space. It’s the concept of the Fondation Beyeler’s architecture taken to its extreme, fatal conclusion. Interestingly, from November 23 of this year, the foundation itself will house a series of Doig’s “Concrete Cabin” paintings – together with almost all of the major works produced by the Edinburgh-born, Trinidad-based (following two long stints in London, separated by a spell in Canada) painter, since 1989.
The exhibition is filled with a splendidly flourishing burst of vegetation, rubbing shoulders with abandoned places, and with what the curators of the show call “the hidden abysses created by loneliness.” In Doig’s paintings something vaguely threatening and half-nightmarish always emerges: forsaken houses, wraith-like figures, foggy spirits that seep from shadowy jungle groves. Looking at the painter’s overview here on display, everything feels liquid and dizzy, full of sticky drips and sodden passages that bring to mind pools of sweat, as though the paint had not yet dried (which may not be far from the truth; it is quite common for Doig to be still working on some pictures just a few days before the opening, as was the case here for the monumental wall painting in the Renzo Piano Room). The entry point for the whole show seems to be the exploration of that liminal space between different states, what Sean O’Hagan has called “the porous hinterland between acute observation and deep, transformative imagination”.
It is not by chance that the exhibition, which does not follow a chronological order, starts with some of the works that best represent this “hinterland”, specifically, his well-known canoe paintings. Consider 100 Years Ago (Carrera), from 2001, where a canoe runs from one end to the other of a three-meter-long canvas, seemingly drifting on water of untold depth. The man sitting in it is reminiscent of a somber castaway amid a swamp-like desolation. Many have pointed out that the key to the success of this very popular image is precisely the peculiar atmosphere it evokes, where you can almost dream yourself into the painting. Yet it is not just anyone’s dream: it is Doig’s dream, directly challenging the viewer’s own memories and childhood fantasies, in a dark, twisted way. For this work, the artist drew inspiration from a group photo for the blues-rock band The Allman Brothers (he subsequently got rid of the band, leaving only the Messianic-looking bass player Berry Oakley), therefore twisting a pop reference into a hallucinatory dreamscape. The viewer is left with no clue as to the allusion, just the feeling of something vaguely familiar. It’s like reading a Scooby-Doo treatment by Alice Munro.
Let’s be clear, this is a game that Doig masters perfectly: he takes his extraordinary visual memory, allows it to coalesce with his personal reminiscences, and then plays with those of the viewers. He channels the ghosts of his artistic forebears with fluidity and daring – from Gauguin to Morrice, via Rothko and the Fauves – mixes them with cut-out figures from familiar postcards, photographs or tourist brochures, adds a pinch of fervent imagination (of one who is a rover at heart) and thus generates a whirlpool that can simultaneously almost sweep you off your feet and transport you to different places of the mind. As Jennifer Higgie aptly surmised, “These are grand narratives that have no story to tell except the one you want to tell yourself, yet they draw you in as effectively as a camp fire; images of exile that make you feel less alone”.
While looking at another of Doig’s canoe paintings, Swamped (the silhouette of a boat afloat on a sluggish bayou, thick with reflected sulfurous yellows, russets and reds), I was taken back twenty years, to a comic strip I used to read every time I was sick as a kid: Corto Maltese. Suddenly, I had the clear vision of a particular vignette depicting Corto sadly rowing a kayak through a South American jungle. The similarity between the actual painting and the projected memory of that strip struck me like an identical tale from two travelers who, unknown to each other, have visited the same country. As Doig himself has said, “The canoe does not represent to me what it does for many others.” And it may be in this banal, yet very true, statement that the power of Peter Doig’s oeuvre lies (as well as the reason for all those hunting figures): after all, his paintings, just like ghost stories, rely on the potency of our unresolved pasts.