In Peter Doig’s painting Lion (Fire Down Below), a lion has gone downtown. It’s standing on a kerb in front of a lemon-yellow wall, by a lime-green door that’s rendered with childlike simplicity. The lion’s head is a febrile mass of sinuous pink and white strokes. But there are no shadows anywhere, and the “road” is a colour field, a black zone that slides towards the coast. Look, says the picture, at how the scene is bright with life! Look, it simultaneously says: they’re only surfaces made of paint.
Lion is among 14 works in Paintings, Doig’s show of new work (all dated 2019) at Michael Werner Gallery in Mayfair. The exhibition is, in a word, magnificent: it testifies to how enchanting Doig’s work can be. His public profile isn’t large, though he once held the auction record for a living European artist: White Canoe was sold in 2007 for $11.3 million. He often suffers the label of “painter’s painter”, because his canvases aren’t amenable to paraphrase; they don’t exactly have “things to say”. The closest Doig came to public acclaim was a nomination for the Turner Prize, back in 1994.
Since then, this Scottish artist has generally divided his time between New York and Port Spain in Trinidad. Most of the works in Paintings appear to be set, to put it roughly, in the latter milieu, though the assumption won’t help you to gauge their intent. The yellow building in Lion may be an old jail in Port of Spain; the animal might be a Rastafarian symbol of pride. Even so, their removal by colour from logic stops them from serving as explanatory clues.
Living in Trinidad, Doig brings white eyes to a black society, and as such, he’s long had the art-world police on his case. But to quote the writer Hilton Als: “[Doig’s] interest in difference doesn’t make him a colonialist, it makes him interested.” And “interest” is the vital force of this show, married to a quirky sympathy.
For instance, take another superb picture: Untitled (Wheelchair), which clearly isn’t untitled, and in which the chair, carrying a black amputee and pushed by a slender black figure, has visibly disconnected wheels. Doig’s quirks become sleights of hand. Behind the men, a wall with red railings turns a corner, vanishes to zero at the hills, but the trees aren’t receding with perspective – they’re jostling forward, strangely sized. And the man in the wheelchair is flatly rendered, except for a single whorl of black paint: his eye. It’s rare to see oils transformed into surfaces with such dextrous control. Paintings is an exhibition of technique.
Doig’s nomination for the Turner is now a quarter-century old. So it’d be especially nice if Oscar Murillo’s paintings were to win the Colombian the prize next month; his work is assiduous with shapes as well. And it feels as though London has been full of thoughtless new art all year. “Digital” doesn’t entail “smart”; ironic cuteness can fail; work that wants to make “statements” rarely does. In this corner of Mayfair, Doig has set an example – one of craft, not theory. Painting, he says, is still the most rigorous way to think.