Landscape has always held pride of place in the paintings of Peter Doig. The peripatetic artist was born in Scotland, raised in Trinidad and Canada, worked in London and now paints primarily in Port of Spain, Trinidad, whose lush, hallucinatory colors are blotted into his canvases. Doig doesn’t paint directly from life; his works are meditations on scenes imagined or remembered. Sometimes there’s a figure in the landscape, but the imagery is dream-like and built up gradually from a mood board of photographs and drawings. There are vestiges of the familiar—a horse, a rider, a boat—but we can’t quite sort out the story that’s unfolding around them. That lack of specificity, Doig says, helps usher the viewer into another world. In Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak), one of the 13 paintings in Doig’s latest show, opening Thursday night at Michael Werner Gallery in New York, an orange lion prowls outside of Port of Spain’s huge jailhouse as a sinister figure approaches. Has the lion been set free? Is his jailer returning? Night Studio (STUDIOFILM & RACQUET CLUB), a portrait of the artist working in the dead of night, is as much about his state of mind as it is about his studio. (Doig’s is a former rum factory, part of which alternates as a film club that he occasionally hosts.) Here, while in the midst of installing these new paintings, Doig offers a behind-the-scenes look at his creative process.
Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak), 2015, is a mixture of stuff from my memory and photographs that I then made drawings of. I took lots and lots of photographs of the lions at the zoo in Trinidad—the first zoo I went to as a child growing up there. It hasn’t changed much. The idea for the lion comes from seeing depictions of the Rastafarian Lion of Judah on the walls of buildings, galvanized fences and T-shirts in Port of Spain. The iconography of the Lion of Judah is something you see quite often. It’s a stand-in for a painting of Christ. I got attracted to the different interpretations of this mythic figure and the fact that people would leave them on the wall. These lion drawings have nothing to do with graffiti—they aren’t stylized or generic—but more to do with someone trying to interpret the lion from their imagination. The prison you see is the one in the middle of Port of Spain. It was built by the British as their detention center and it takes up a whole city block. I’ve never been inside but I do know people who have, unfortunately, and it’s a pretty grim place. In the cells you are very aware of the streets so I began to think about what it must be like to be in there where you can hear the city and especially at Carnival time, when you can hear the music and revelry but you’re locked away. Seeing this poor lion in the zoo banging his head against one of the doors of his cage, I thought about the lion being inside of the cage and outside of the prison and flipped them. The prison is almost like this Colman’s mustard powder yellow color and it’s like a yellow abstract painting in its own right. There aren’t many yellow paintings around. Of course you think of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and chair and also of the yellow house he painted. I was thinking about all of those things. I was making up a narrative but wanted it to be very open.
I saw a scenario quite similar to this one. I was in the sea just down from where I live in Trinidad, in a kayak with a friend, and we came around a bend and there was just this boat and a guy standing there wearing an old wetsuit. He was a spearfisherman and next to him was a guy sitting in a yellow anorak, very Winslow Homer-esque. There was no one else around. We paddled up towards him and started chatting. He had been spearfishing and had caught these huge groupers. There was something mysterious about it, the way he was dressed. A year or so later I started making sketches of what I remembered of it. I thought about the boat - it was a Trinidadian fishing boat which is not that shape really, but I wanted to get rid of any reference to a particular type of boat so I just thought ‘floating vessel,’ though my floating vessel did take on a canoe-like shape. [This past May, Doig’s Swamped, 1990, a painting of a white canoe in a moonlit lagoon, sold at auction for $26 million, a record for the artist.] I also Googled ‘Spearfisherman’ and found all these images taken in the 1950s. But I couldn’t find a picture of the pose I wanted for the figure. So I took some pictures of me standing in the same pose as the people I found online holding the spears I liked. So it’s a mixture of using my own body and other people’s. One of my favorite paintings is that Picasso in the Museum of Modern Art— Night Fishing at Antibes (1939). My painting is nothing like it stylistically, but I’ve always been intrigued by that ‘above the water, below the water’ idea in painting. And that dynamic between the two figures.
Night Studio (Studiofilm & Racquet Club), 2015
With Night Studio I was trying to make a painting that conveyed that feeling of being a painter working at night grappling to find something or to make it right. A lot of my friends who paint, paint at night, especially when they’ve got things to finish and there’s those long, long nights and it’s almost like you become delirious in the process of painting. You enter a bit of a dream world. A lot of my best ideas or the best things in paintings come in a state where you’re not really 100% conscious of what you’re doing, really. Where you’re almost on the verge of total mental and physical exhaustion but you’re working through it. You get to the point where that’s the only state you can be in to finish your work or make your painting. That figure in the foreground is me making a pose for a painting and thinking, ‘How am I going to get this right? The only thing I’ve got on hand is myself as far as the figure is concerned.’
Horse and Rider, 2014
The structure is based on the Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington although in order to get the visage right, I had to use my own face. I didn’t want it to be a self-portrait but I wanted to be able to come up with an expression that was right for the painting. I took snapshots on my phone just to get the feeling. The painting is a bit of a masquerade. I wanted to make a painting of someone who represents the bad man in history. Within Trinidad’s Carnival, there is a lot of masquerade where people depict the bad man or the master. You can see his boat is in the background. He’s off the boat and on a horse on the mainland. His face is like a mask.
I’ve been making paintings of these architectural stacks of loudspeakers that you see in the landscape ever since I first started going to Trinidad in 2000. There’s something about a stack of speakers playing in the landscape. It such an incredible sensation hearing sound in that outdoor setting. I also just sort of went off on my own tangent and kind of abstracted the whole idea in a way. The female figure came from having seen people dancing and responding to the music. She was a figure I developed over the year of two of making the painting though I’ve used that same silhouette quite a number of times. When I was at art school in London in the late 1970s, I bought a handbook from the 1950s that had all these black and white nudes with their bits airbrushed out. Or whatever they would do in those days pre-airbrushing. I liked her pose and her shape and I’ve gone back to her over the years. So I can adapt her.