We live in gloriously art-abundant, paradoxical times. You could spend an entire day at the Venice Biennale in the Giardini and Arsenale among pavilions packed with ideas, words and sounds, and believe that painting had mostly disappeared. But meander along the Grand Canal, and palazzo after palazzo drips with painting shows of supreme quality, their sensuous colour and luminosity enhanced by the watery setting, their ambition anchored by resonance with history.
The most exciting new work in Venice is by Peter Doig at the light-drenched Palazzetto Tito. The paintings are assured and texturally varied: delicate distemper on linen, richly stained lathered surfaces, patches of stencilling to distance definition, spiky drawing into wet paint with the end of a brush. They continue Trinidadian motifs from Doig’s 2013 exhibition in Edinburgh, but with remarkable differences.
As you would expect from an artist based in Trinidad, there are lush, saturated colours of turquoise sea and cobalt skies, and dreamily floating figures – a Day-Glo orange fisherman and sultry hooded companion in a cropped kayak in “Spearfishing” – that fit the Venetian setting. Trinidad, though, is no longer merely Doig’s tropical paradise; it has become an often urban backcloth spurring formal investigations into space and composition.
From the precisely balanced “House in Clouds” – a misty pinkish seascape weighted by the grid of a balcony, the strict vertical of an orchid-draped pole and enigmatic peripheral figures – to the towering “Speaker/Girl”, where a shadowy nude leans against a ziggurat of loudspeakers climbing Caribbean hills, these architectural paintings look terrific in Palazzetto Tito’s elegantly proportioned decorative interiors.
Some retain Doig’s familiar tripartite structure of sky, boat and sea, but with confusions. Others play with perspective, pictorial expectations and storytelling. “Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak)” transforms the outside yellow brick wall of Trinidad’s jail into the inside of a lion’s cage; the animal – inspired by the Rastafarian Lion of Judah, but in Venice evoking St Mark’s lions – paces while a barely outlined jailer turning a corner leads the eye down a dizzying, upended side street to a lighthouse and a sugar cane train. Spatial ambiguity (and the engine) reference a celebrated de Chirico cityscape.
With multiple converging sources and disrupted fictions, Doig has long grappled with Modernism’s legacies and how to sustain them in the iPad age. In this context, “Night Studio” is significant. Beneath fantastically enlarged, dropping almond leaves, a self-portrait of the artist, working at night seemingly in a trance, is set within his studio, a former rum factory partly used as a cinema club, cordoned off by a rusty wire grid, and depicted as so many receding paintings within paintings. It is a masterpiece of interiority.