Mystery, transportation, bursts of hot tropical colour in midwinter: two beguiling London shows of new paintings, Peter Doig at Michael Werner Gallery and Michael Armitage: The Chapel at South London Gallery, are timely Christmas pleasures, each turning on the convergence of the supernatural and the real to joyous yet disturbing effect.
Living between different continents — Doig in London, New York and the Trinidad of his childhood; Armitage in London and Kenya, where he was born in 1984 — both artists make lush, seductive figurative paintings derived from fused sources of memories, photographs, film and art history, hinting at enchanted, disquieting narratives.
In Doig’s “Red Man (Sings Calypso)” — the title alludes to the Trinidad term for mixed race — a muscular figure in swimming trunks, chest thrust forwards, hands clasped, stands framed by the strict geometries of a lifeguard’s tower against horizontal bands of sky, sea and sand. It is a perfect example of Doig’s balance of the laconic and the formal. Turquoise waves froth against the shore: a scene of pastoral content, except that behind on the beach there twists an inky purple silhouette — the bather’s alter ego? — wrestling with a serpent, who entirely distorts the harmonies of structure and mood.
You think of the ancient struggle and agony of “Laocoön and His Sons”, but Doig says his inspiration was a well-known Trinidad character who walks the beach with a boa constrictor, inviting tourist snaps. The bather himself, proud, yet ungainly and full of pathos, looks back to Cézanne, but four oil sketches experimenting with different poses and compositional cropping suggest that other sources — Marsden Hartley’s brawny 1940 “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack” and a shot of Robert Mitchum in the 1957 Trinidad-shot film Fire Down Below — contributed to the image. The highly worked facial features and eyes, forthright though not quite meeting our gaze, are the most expressive Doig has so far painted.
Doig has long been a master of ambiguity, teasing out levels of perception, alienation and attitudes to beauty with alluring screens — patterns of branches, snowflakes — that obscure or unsettle dreamy landscapes. Newly ambitious here is the concentration on the figure. Another set of sketches in oil on linen, vellum and cardboard, with paint packed and pressed into sensuous, textural surfaces (a delight of this show is that it feels like a glimpse into studio experiments), builds up to the exhibition’s tour de force, “Two Trees”, six years in the making and just completed in New York at a moment of deep concern about social disintegration.
The thickly painted mauve-black trees, almost anthropomorphised into watchful sentries, are those viewed from Doig’s Trinidad studio, but in the painting the seas rise up beneath a gorgeous white moon to half-submerge them. A richly stained, semi-legible tropical hinterland contains suggestions of a violent human altercation, while a trio of sinister black figures in brilliant costume and headgear dominate the foreground. Picasso’s “Three Musicians” — harlequin, Pierrot, monk — comes to mind: Doig’s has a helmeted hockey player Pierrot, an aggressive harlequin holding a camcorder, and a downcast tracksuited penitent whose lacy white cap, depicted in paint squeezed straight from the tube, suggests a brain X-ray.
This 21st-century commedia dell’arte group relates directly to two real-life incidents: a Trinidad gang murder and its remorseful young killer; and a drowning that a witness filmed rather than tried to prevent. Doig is not a political artist, but at the top of his game here he manages to unite his flair for theatre in this magnificent, flattened watery composition. It resembles a magical stage set, even including self-parodying fake pink snow flurries, but is also oblique reportage of current social tensions.
In Armitage’s show the most beautiful figure is a two-metre sinewy black nude in a contorted pose. It takes a moment to realise that the S-shape echoes the pink snake oozing from the corner of the picture and beginning to curl up the man’s leg — another Laocoön allusion, but also a contemporary one: attacks on political prisoners in Nairobi under former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi involved throwing snakes into their cells in Nyayo House jail.
On South London Gallery’s opening wall, this nude is one of three towering single figures, all bizarre victims, perhaps implying saints. “Hope” is a statuesque black woman in a pink shift who has just given birth to a donkey, set against a dark sky with a flying washing machine, while “Conjestina” represents female middleweight champion and schizophrenic Conjestina Achieng naked, in boxing gloves, attended by copulating monkeys and a pair of nuns, in the pose of Watteau’s “Pierrot”: a vulnerable figure of media mockery.
Inspired by the SLG’s chapel-like Victorian interior, Armitage says he wanted to ask, “Can an art space function how a chapel functions?” Facing his saints is “Exorcism”, portraying a Tanzanian ritual of women gathering to be publicly exorcised, a scene Armitage witnessed online — though aspects of this complex, swirling group composition also refer to Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries Gardens”: Armitage is questioning religion as public performance. Both this and the saints look to a gruesome altarpiece, “The Flaying of Marsyas”, a congested, not quite persuasive response to Titian’s painting of wanton cruelty, placed as a secular equivalent of a crucifixion — without redemption.
Armitage chose Marsyas to illustrate violence in a European, not African, story — though he restages it with black actors: a machete-wielding boy, a tormentor slicing into flesh who is oddly based on an innocuous figure cutting bark from a tree in a film about the artist’s working processes. Armitage paints, distinctively, on singed bark cloth peeled from Lugubo trees, used in Uganda for burial shrouds. Stitched together, the undulating material provides resistance for this fluent painter, disrupting compositions with holes and splits that are sometimes incorporated — in “Anthill” exorcised women flying on hyenas emerge from these dips — and grounding the oeuvre in an east African context.
Gauguin (and Doig too) are in the background as Armitage explores the exoticised gaze, but in this first London public show he declares an assured, independent voice. The best painting is the enigmatic “Lacuna”, which appropriates Doig’s celebrated canoe to depict men waterproofing a boat by scorching it; above, outlines of creeping lizards, ghostly heads and faces appear then dissolve in mist and smoke. Everything collides: land and sky, water and fire, workaday life and dream states, lyricism and menace. No single image dominates; rather, Armitage layers flowing linear forms with loose gestural marks and thin, fluid washes across lively, scrubbed, reworked surfaces: painting as a celebration of both the material and the immaterial.