For a brief moment in 2007, when Charles Saatchi sold White Canoe for nearly six million pounds at Sotheby’s, the Scottish-born painter Peter Doig became Europe’s most expensive living artist. Prior to that Doig’s works had garnered modest prices and wide critical acclaim, having won first prize at the John Moores competition in 1993 and a nomination for the Turner Prize in 1994.
Despite that, Doig has hardly become a household name, though Tate Britain afforded him the honour of a major retrospective exhibition in 2008. His current show of new work that opens the London branch of the prestigious Michael Werner Gallery (situated on the first floor of a beautiful Mayfair townhouse) confirms his position as one of the most significant painters working today.
Water and boats often feature in his landscapes, and they do here, with the human figure sometimes floating on or above water. The people are ghostly and ethereal, creating an air of mystery, of things just happened, or about to happen. Apparently Doig often works from found photographs, or film stills, though the relationship between his paintings and those found images feels like a tenuous one. It makes sense once you know it, rather than being apparent when you are looking at the paintings themselves. They definitely capture a moment, as photos often do, and frame a figure in space or a landscape so as to place them at a distance, as photos often do, but Doig is not bound by realist representation, as photos often are, but is more concerned with mood, tension, and atmosphere, stripping away the concrete, the real, to merge figuration with abstraction.
Ultimately, it’s as a great colourist that Doig contributes to an examination of what painting is, or can be. In Figure by a Pool (2008-2012) and Walking Figure by Pool (2011), which are essentially the same image painted in different colours, I couldn’t help but see a slight nod to Hockney in subject matter, though whereas Hockney emphasises the harsh, bright surface of things in his swimming pool paintings, what makes Doig’s paintings so distinctive is what he does to the surface – how he draws attention to and manipulates the texture and palette of his surfaces; not flattening them out, or making them uniform, but dividing them up to create intriguing and, at times, unsettling contrasts.
This structural division into different colour bands is also referenced and played out more explicitly in Painting for Wall Painters (Prosperity P. o. S.)(2008–2010) an image of a wall painted with flags, in the capital city of Trinidad (where Doig is now permanently based). Here, the uniformity of the flags’ colours and the repetition of the limited palette is undermined by the use of distemper on linen, which makes distinct each individual, broad brushstroke and transforms the original wall painting into a painting about painting. The wall, the colours, the flags, the world itself, all become less tangible.
Similarly, in Cricket Painting (Paragrand) (2006-12) oil paint is laid on the canvas in acid hues of orange, green and blue, the surface flecked in places with splashes of paint, so that action of the image – a girl lobbing a cricket ball that hangs in the centre of the canvas like a white, full moon towards a boy waiting at a wicket – becomes secondary; a compliment to the dynamism and energy of the colours’ relationship.