Activation of Painterly Surface
Q: Although renowned for the mysterious appeal of images, your painting is also greatly acclaimed for the originality of its material elements, including the composition, the choice of colors, the application of paint, and the texture of pictorial surface, as well as the intensity of the painting’s physical affects. Also, your painting style has changed over the years. While the paintings from the late 1980s and the early 1990s have a thick surface, seamlessly filled with details, the paintings from the 1990s and the early 2000s have a fluid surface with a lot of empty or scantly painted space. The more recent paintings have yet different styles. Would you talk about the reasons and motives for such changes of painting style, and the specific methods pertaining to each period?
Doig: These first three paintings, including Swamped, were made in the early 1990s; these two, Ski Jacket and Blotter, were made when I returned to the master’s program for art, which was very intensive, 48 weeks straight painting in one year. The school was well-known for its abstract painters. Prior to that, I hadn’t really been very interested in painting techniques. I was quite anti-painting. I went to the college at St. Martins in the early eighties, and reacted very much against the trends taught by my teachers, which was a type of lyrical abstraction. A fascination with, or fetishizing of materials.
Q: Was it like New Painting?
Doig: No, it was almost a lyrical type of abstraction; it was anti-New Painting, anti-graffitti. It was very much about materials and effects. The painters who were really admired were painters like Turner, those who use materials in a very strong way. When I went back seven years later, I was in a new group. The people in the group were also very much excited by painting techniques, and materials. I in a way started to use some of that in my own paintings. However, I always had my subjects, which my fellow students and teachers all thought as suspect; they would say, “what’s he’s doing?,” “Why is he putting canoe in an abstract painting?” They thought it was a joke, maybe.
Q: Wouldn’t going back and forth between abstraction and figurative expressions be the major appeal of your painting?
Doig: I realize that; I succumbed to that type of working. I enjoyed it. I started looking at the types of paintings I hadn’t looked at before. I found that I could use ideas from other paintings and still have my own subject. Because subject was important, imagery was very important.
Q: The paintings from the 1990s, such as Ski Jacket (1994) and Blotter (1993) are characterized by all-over distribution of painted dots, which stand out for people or other things, and the repetition of brushstrokes which creates folded patterns, to cause the shimmering visual effects, while inducing the spectator’s eye movement from the one end of painting to another. Why did you choose to paint in this way? Doig: I was trying to stimulate the whole surface of the canvas. In Ski Jacket, I use paint in a much more literal way, an application of a lot of paint; they I started to realize that you could use paint less. So this painting, Blotter, has a lot of areas which has little paint. It’s a
play between little paint and thick paint, in a way creating a specific visual space. In Ski Jacket, there are actual dots and animated dots which are the people. The interchange between them creates a sense of constant change or transformation. The people become just blobs of paint.
Q: Such effects were very exciting….
Doig: But this painting (Ski Jacket), at that time, was a kind of risky painting, because it felt so open. In fact, there was a man who said he was interested in buying this painting, when no one really bought any painting. He came to my studio when I was working on it, and actually, when I got into a pretty important exhibition in London, he came to the exhibition and looked at the painting and said, ”I don’t want this painting, as it’s not finished”. I had to be brave enough to say that this is finished. I make the decision, not him.
Q: But your painting looked very attractive to the spectators, including myself, who encountered the painting in the early 2000s. Because the painting had a very fluid look; with its impressions shifting according to your standpoint, the painting seemed very ambiguous. Its flexibility corresponded with our general perception of the world at that time, as something very insecure and de-centred, and for that reason seemed very real to us.
Doig: Accepting as an artist that painting is not a real world, you actually have a lot of freedom; you can make something, but it can’t just be the freedom that’s totally excessive and has no rigor to it; has to have some rigor, even though it’s painted in a fluid, loose way; to me, it has to have a subtext.
Q: What was the subtext?
Doig: For me, there has to be an inspiration to make a painting. It’s not just a painterly thing. Otherwise, I would have been a very different type of artist. To describe my inspiration for Ski Jacket, I was very interested in a photograph my father found in a newspaper in Canada. Actually, the headline of the photograph was “Exorbitant Prices and Excessive Crowds Make the Leisure Stressful for Many Japanese Workers.” There was a photograph from a Japanese tourist spot. For some reason it ended up in a newspaper in Toronto. The photograph was shaped like the right-hand panel. It reminded me of the Japanese landscape painting, the scroll-like form, with all activities coming down.
Q: Is that why this painting has a division in the centre?
Doig: I started the painting just as one for many months. I was very interested in the figures, because the figures were all amateur skiers, the beginners. You could see that they were struggling. That was a sort of analogy for making a certain kind of…this kind of painting. Awkwardness. As this side became more and more dense, I felt that it was becoming too literal. So I added another panel. I mirrored it. At that time, I was using reflection a lot, as a way of changing the perception of the viewer, making them realize that reflection is more interesting than, or as interesting as, a supposed reality. In Blotter, the man is looking at his reflection.
Q: To the spectators in the early 2000s, such technical devices gave strong physical effects, which lead to psychological responses, even creating a worldview.
Doig: Well I hope so. I didn’t think of it at that time, but it’s interesting as you say. But don’t forget when I was making these particular paintings, I had no audience at all. The audience was me and my few friends who came to my studio. Now I am bringing my paintings to Tokyo; there is an audience. But at that time, there was no audience.
Learning from Art History
Q: Your painting often changes its impressions according to the spectator’s standpoint. For example, in Echo Lake (1998), the surface of the painting gets blurry as you stand closer, with the figures melting into color areas and rings of light, but as you stand back a little, a dramatic scene emerges. Were you aiming at such effects?
Doig: You have to realize that the abstraction of this kind goes back to Velazquez and Pollock. I was inspired by such painters. I was not making reality, but a suggested reality. I was suggesting reality, not really trying to make anything that has to do with realism. Sometimes my painting veers towards realism, like some paintings in other rooms, but, at this point, I was not interested in that.
I guess, being a painter at this point in history, you have all of the history of paintings to look back on, I realize that it’s all important; it’s all there is to connect with. As I was telling my students, as soon as you are committed to it, you are connected with the history of painting. And that’s a positive thing, as long as you don’t become a mimic.
Q: Your painting gives us another sense of reality, a physical reality.
Doig: That has something to do with the scale of my paintings. I never really make small paintings. There are few small paintings in the exhibition. Even when I had no one to show the paintings, I still wanted to make big paintings, because for me it was about making paintings, not so much about showing paintings. Yes, I had hoped to show paintings one day, but the act of making painting, you had to have that experience of working beyond the periphery.
Q: What is the periphery? Your fixed viewpoint?
Doig: Yes, that, and my body, and my perception.
Q: For the structure of your painting, you use color-fields and all-over distribution of dots or fold-like patterns. These are the methods of determining the structure of painting, which, having become predominant with the Abstract Expressionists, extends the basic elements of painting such as color and brushstroke, instead of arranging compositional details according to a predetermined design. Why do you use them as a structural principle of your painting? What is the reason for your special preference for color-fields?
Doig: I think that painting has to have resonance. It has to have a life beyond what it’s depicting. Without that, it may be just a drawing, or illustration. For example, this painting here (Canoe Lake) has the acid use of color; I wanted it to be quite aggressive that way.
When the Images Are Born
Q: Figure in a Mountain Landscape (I Love You Big Dummy) (1999) is a strange and attractive painting. While it’s painting a person in the landscape, the area surrounding the human figure seems to infiltrate into the figure’s outline. The entire landscape has a watery feel. How did you come to obtain this kind of hallucinatory vision?
Doig: Again for this painting, the inspiration was a photograph. A painter in a landscape. A Canadian painter called Franklin Carmichael, who is one of the Group of Seven, the famous landscape painters in Canada. I went to visit the museum where they have a lot of their works, in Ontario, Canada. There was a small photograph of this man painting the landscape, and he was wearing a black coat with a pointed hood, a quite extreme-looking outfit; he looked like a warlock, a devil, or a goblin. I think his painting is a least-interesting painting of the group, because he is quite a literal kind of painter—a conservative kind of painter. But the photograph really intrigued me because, here he was in the wilderness, wearing a costume. When I painted the canvas, to begin with, I painted him in his black outfit; he looked too much like a devil or a warlock, so that I had to find a way of embedding him in a landscape, making him become as much part of the painting as the painting itself. That’s why I took an element of the landscape to make his blottery form.
Q: You said that subject matter is important to you. Many people find this painting, Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre (2000/2002) very attractive. How was this image born?
Doig: When I first visited Trinidad, I had started this painting, but hadn’t finished it. When I visited Trinidad, there was no figures in the painting. That was just a painting of the bridge. I was very intrigued by this, by this kind of gateway into this space. There was a postcard of the existing bridge. I like the idea of having these gatekeepers.
Q: Why are these people dressed in a strange attire, as of the nineteenth century?
Doig: When I was younger, I used to work at the theater of the opera house, as a dresser, helping the singers put the costumes on. Dancers, too. There was a performance of Petrushka by Prokofiev. Rudlof Nureyev was a main dancer. This was me and a friend put on the costumes from the wardrobe department. But the photograph—we did that not for the painting; that was twenty years before the painting was made. But I had the photograph of us wearing the costumes. So I was very conscious that I wanted this painting to be a bit like the magic of the stage set, not reality.
Q: Petrushka is a ghost story and there are a lot of ghost stories in your paintings.
Doig: I think so. But my own stories - not really connected with external sources.
Moving Away from a Signature Style
Q: In the second section of this exhibition are the paintings painted after you moved to Trinidad. They are painted in different styles. There is a painting like Ping Pong (2006-8), which presents a sharp abstract distortion of reality; there is also Lapeyrouse Wall (2004), which shows a nice balance between abstraction and figuration; yet there is a painting that has a blatantly “realistic”—almost graphic—style. Why did you try using so many different styles?
Doig: I never really wanted to get stuck in style. I realize for instance the painting with all those dots, that was a seductive way of making a painting. So I wanted to see if I could make a painting which didn’t rely on that and still be seductive maybe. I adopted realistic style, on purpose, to break away from Ski Jacket.
Q: The painting, Pelican (Stag) (2004) seems to be pushing the self-reflexive painting techniques of the 1990s even far. There is a big splash of paint cutting into the landscape, from the behind of the man to his feet, making the landscape melting into the brushstroke. It’s as though another dimension of reality is infiltrating everyday reality.
Doig: I think I was referring to something that I’ve really seen. So, the figure isn’t out of place. Yes, it was surprising---surprising, but not out of place, that’s what makes the painting attractive.
Towards New Styles, Myth, and Life
Q: The paintings painted in Trinidad often treat the local landscape and activities. Spearfishing (2013), for example, depicts a fishing scene at night. But even though it’s a nightscape, it has an impression of being bright, as if being incandescent with such brilliant colors as orange, yellow, and green. Is there anything in your life in Trinidad that has caused the change of your mood?
Doig: That’s an interesting question. In Trinidad, half the day is darkness, always. Every day, it turns dark at six in the evening. It’s stark black. I don’t think there is brightness – just a lot of darkness. A lot of paintings in Trinidad actually depict nightscapes.
Q: Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak) (2015) is a painting like a palimpsest. It has the traces of the previously lines, but were not completely erased, juxtaposed with the newly drawn figures. The effect is like the co-existence of different layers of time within the same picture plane.
Doig: That became important. To begin with, you see this figure of a hand, which is my hand; I traced it; then, there’s a big figure of the lion—when I decided that the figure was too big, I wanted to change scale, but didn’t want to lose this [the trace of the previous lion figure], because I thought it was interesting. The foot of the lion figure was also changed. His arm was like this, and his two back feet are here. But the device of leaving the traces of the previous drawing felt like not for the suggestion of movement, but to keep the painting fresh and moving.
Q: Why do you paint a lion so often?
Doig: In Trinidad, you see lions a lot—not real ones, but the pictures of lions—the Lion of Judas, is a symbol, almost like a Christ-like symbol; it’s painted on the walls, and t-shirts, important for the Rastafarians. A big element people relate to.
Q: Is there any specific story about it?
Doig: It’s Biblical. But it’s just become a folk figure, a folk image, standing for a Christ figure.
Q: The new painting, Bather (Sings Calypso) (2019) is such a huge painting, with a gigantic image of the bather. Although the bather is an everyday figure, it feels strange to see it painted so big. Why?
Doig: The one on the left is the first one, and there’s a whole story to it. The second one came later. I became interested in the idea of masculinity. I think it’s important to have an outsider figure.
Q: What is the story?
A: It was more a series of connections I made between the fact that the American actor Robert Mitchum had spent 10 months in Trinidad in the mid to late 1950’s making two movies. Not much is known or recorded about his activities whilst he was not filming ...but when he returned to the USA he recorded a somewhat authentic calypso recorded almost immediately.
My question and the reason for making the painting and choosing Mitchum as the protagonist was to ask is it valid to ‘take’ or make your own as an outsider; what is real and what is fake? Yes, he is masculine and exudes a certain amount of machismo but there is also a great deal of empathy in his expressions. The pose is a male beach pose (of the era) - I make reference to the beach paintings by the great American painter Marsden Hartley. The story reflects upon the age-old concern that their culture and stories are often being told by outsiders not themselves.
Q: We are all moved by your painting, as you always do your best to keep painting fresh, exploring all the possibilities of what is called “paint,” or “painting.” What do you do in order to keep painting without getting bored, or getting stuck?
Doig: I don’t think I get bored. But being stuck is another story. That is why, sometimes, it gets so long to finish. When you are stuck, then you have to leave it.
Q: Because the world of contemporary art now is so diverse, and many people are attracted to interpersonal activities such as the construction of situations (socially engaged art) and relational art. Is it difficult to keep painting all the time?
Doig: I just think you can leave them out, extinguish those worlds, to make painting. You can stay outside of it. You have to be in your own world. So it’s a good reason to be painting in Trinidad.