Back in the Nineties and early Noughties, when painting appeared to have been rendered obsolete by the dead sharks and unmade beds of YBA conceptualism, Peter Doig was almost alone in creating paintings that were at once bracingly contemporary and rooted in his medium’s rich and complex traditions. The Scottish-born, Canadian-raised, Trinidad-based painter’s slightly sinister, multi-referential paintings of lakes, canoes and Caribbean jungles proved irresistible to both gallery-goers and collectors, with the sale of his White Canoe for $11.3 million in 2007 making him the world’s most expensive living artist.
Now, with painting resurgent – or so I’m frequently told – Doig is cited as a prime influence by current hot names such as Hurvin Anderson (shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize) and Michael Armitage (currently winning plaudits at the South London Gallery). So this show of recent work is an opportunity for the 58-year-old Doig to demonstrate that he is not just an éminence grise for the young guns of today, but still a major force in his own right.
The fact that the show’s central work, Two Trees – so large the gallery windows had to be removed to get it in the building – is still wet on the canvas, gives the sense of an artist painting his way back to the forefront, almost literally before our eyes. And the painting, showing three mysterious figures framed against a moonlit sea, makes a dazzling restatement of Doig’s key strengths.
The characteristic Munch-on-drugs touch of Doig’s brush is instantly recognisable: at once assured and knowingly gauche in its visionary colour, with endless references within references, and the sense that nothing is quite what it seems.
Despite its air of enchanted stillness, the painting depicts a Trinidadian gang killing that took place at a spot well known to Doig. But rather than attempt a literal recreation of the incident, Doig took images that had lodged in his memory and slotted them into a landscape he’d had lying around his studio for years. Two figures, one in disconcertingly martial camouflage, the other wearing what looks like a woolly hat, but is apparently supposed to represent his brain, were inspired by people seen at an ice hockey match in New York, while a top-knotted figure pointing a video camera hints overtly at the current impulse to photograph distressing scenes rather than intervene – as in the recent incident when American youths laughed at and filmed a drowning man.
If this dreamlike tableau isn’t really animated – it isn’t clear who’s being killed and by whom – this is art that’s designed to resonate in the mind as much as the eye: a sumptuous magic realism for the digital age, with a random, search-engine-like connection-making rendered in oil painting that delights with the sheer richness of its surfaces. As you get closer to the painting, the trees break down into melting, psychedelic forms, while the flatly rendered camouflage sweatshirt could serve as the basis for an abstract painting in its own right. Doig, indeed, paints figurative paintings as though they were abstract.
In Red Man (Sings Calypso) the approach feels close to a kind of updated pop art, with a muscular Robert Mitchum (who apparently visited Trinidad and recorded a creditable calypso album) overlaying a superficially similar painting of a bather by the American artist Marsden Hartley and a photograph of the young Doig on a beach. Everything about the way the picture’s painted – with figurative forms breaking down into abstract textures and shapes – is designed to create a haunting sense of seeing this rather blank image through someone else’s eyes: not Doig’s, but a fictionalised fourth “gaze” that stands between us and the painting.
In Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak), a yellow wall, filling most of the painting, may represent Trinidad’s zoo or its prison, while a large lion prowling in the foreground may be an animal from the zoo or the Lion of Judah, emblem of the prison’s Rastafarian population, or both – and that sharp perspective down the wall to the left, with the strangely transparent prison guard, references the great Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.
If we may find ourselves wondering why we should care about all this arcane reference-making, the fact that no wall texts or hand-outs are provided suggests that Doig himself doesn’t consider this background necessary to an enjoyment of his work: that these images are intended to be appreciated as “pure painting”, rather as we’d approach an abstract work, with their dimension of unsettling mystery absorbed through feeling and intuition, rather than “information”.
If this intriguing exhibition doesn’t add a great deal to our understanding of Doig’s art, it shows that the most significant figurative artist of our time is still very much in the game.