Peter Doig, Michael Werner review - ambiguous and excellent
First, second and third-guesses encouraged
There are two moons in Night Bathers, 2019 (pictured below) One is set in the sky, a great soupy plate with a greenish fringe creating an ugly smear of white across the night. The other is a treacherously hazy rectangle, floating like a cloud above a reclining bather — so inexplicable it could double as a cataract. The latter is, perhaps, a reflection of the former, but at a surreal remove — no reflection looks like that, no reflected light would fall there. The twinned moons, however — real and oneiric — neatly explain the power of Doig’s paintings.
Fourteen are now on show across two floors at Michael Werner Gallery in Mayfair. Within them are to be discerned myths and lore, personal memories, and historical events. They set forth Doig’s ability to move between temporalities and yoke together different interpretative registers. In the context of a country still marked by its colonial history, the doubtfulness that Doig encourages in his paintings is generative. The Scottish artist, who spent six of his childhood years in Trinidad and Tobago, returned for a residency in 2000 and since 2002 has lived between Trinidad and New York. He’s sensitive to the country’s history his own complicated place within it, writing in 2013 in a letter, “I believe that most of my works made in Trinidad question my being there and also why things are as they are.” To be able to see gaps and contradictions is to be wise to the limits of subjective knowledge, without such self-reflection, hubris finds sanction.
This means he’s capable of taking positions of scathing criticism. The figure of the film star Robert Mitchum, drawn from a beach photograph, occupies the central position of two large paintings. In the first, Bather (Sings Calypso), 2019, his body is smooth and idealised; sybaritic eyes look off over the viewer’s left shoulder. While filming in Trinidad and Tobago, Mitchum became fond of calypso and later released his own album of songs. An act of genuine respect or shameless moneymaking? The answer’s as ambivalent as the Laocoön-like figure writhing behind him on the beach. Is he struggling with the serpent or nursing it against his chest? In the other, Bather Nightwave, 2019 (pictured below) Mitchum’s figure takes up the same foreground. This time, his calves and face are putrid impasto of black and green. A pink M hovers over his brow, temples and nose like a mask. Though his stance is powerful his clasped hands here belie nervousness. Beneath his left elbow a naked women reclines, her arm unnaturally lengthened and her eyes glassy. A whetted moon menaces the cut sky. Dark landmasses crouching above the sea's bright line seem to be moving inwards. The beach itself is rendered in a bilious, violent orange that brings to mind Bacon. Doig revels in revealing Mitchum’s rotten presumption.
Yet his paintings are also taken up with by broader, looser concerns. In Painting on an Island (Carrera), 2019, a man seated in profile paints on a canvas turned fully towards the viewer. Countering his marmoreal features and air of deep repose is his t-shirt, which is grubby and worn down to threads. His trousers bag in strange places, as if they had previously belonged to someone else or a plumper past. The stool upon which he sits is also badly weathered, its wicker strands bursting from under his lean thighs. He is poor, yet absorbed. His posture recalls William Blake’s depiction of Isaac Newton, though the significance is inverted. Where Newton leans over a sextant to measure the earth, blind to the beauty around him, this figure leans over to paint. Perhaps it is a saving grace to forget his surroundings. The thin thong necklace he wears suggests attachment; the semi-circular sweep of fatigue under his dark red eyes speaks of effort and dedication. From the horizon-line rises a landmass tethered to the sea and a full moon half-way unanchored; closer by is a white embracing wall. This man, whose appearance is at once outside of time and abraded by it, is painting on the Trinidadian prison island of Carrera, where lives are measured out as sentences. Does his brush spill white paint or is he obliterating the blankness? Is he squandering or filling his allotted time? What does limbo reveal of a person?
To return to those two strange moons brings to light a slight unevenness in the show. Take away the real moon — which lights a central, supine female moon-bather — and the painting remains strange, otherworldly. Retain it and occlude its dream sibling and the painting edges towards trite: the bather’s expression seems a rictus, the apparent richness of the painting’s smaller details seem to diminish. Likewise, the two figures of Spearfisher (Red Moon), 2019, are overdetermined. The painting is lax for its lack of a sense of unease. Yet it abounds with colour. The violets, ultramarines and greens seem to have swirled in from a roiling, volcanic nocturne over the course of a long dusk. Hints of fluorescent paint lend hallucinatory acuity to details that seem edged with electricity. Like most of the other pieces on show, all of which date from 2019, the painting is on linen. The absorbent textile allows him to dab, daub and haze in a playful chromatic cyclorama. Loose layers of pink and blue scrub across the bottom of Untitled (Wheelchair), 2019, as if the ground itself is mimicking the pink blossom magically blowing off from the orchard. The blue trapezoids in Lion (Fire Down Below), 2019 are so intense as to be their own force.
Should we find Doig’s aesthetic mastery disturbing? His command of colour might be a conscious distraction, perhaps we should beware. There’s also the question of side shows and subplots. In his paintings there's often someone on a corner, hiding or doubling or having something happen to them. These figures slide out of sight, evocative but chary of scrutiny. In Untitled, (Wheelchair), 2019, a dramatically foreshortened man in a patterned shirt looks ready to walk through the red railings separating the road from a blossoming orchard. Across the road, a police officer has pulled in to detain a man standing splayed against the wall. Yet, can we be sure? Distance leaves the rendition indistinct and half of the scene is obscured. In the foreground, the policeman is doubled, except this time he helps an amputee across the road. In Lion in the Road (Sailors), 2019 (pictured top) a lion comfortably seated on a book-like plinth cuts seductively green eyes across a prominent stone frame stationed in the middle of the road. A vision? Perhaps no more so than the man bisected by the lamp-post who walks along the actual pavement. The lion knows where it is, even if its viewers don’t.
“I’d love to think that the paintings were like movies and that the viewer becomes the director of the movie,” Doig said in an interview in 1995. Still today, his paintings turn into mirrors for his viewers. What do you see? he asks. Hololo Mountain Road, 2019 depicts a shadowy man bearing a tray slung from his neck. There’s something hungry about his posture — bent over and forwards as if stooping to hurry for food. He could be vulnerable or he could be menacing. What features can be made out are difficult to discern, for the hollows of his eyes are black on darker black; his face looks positively skeletal. Equally, however, he is dignified: an independent wraith, glimpsed perhaps at speed from a car, working at an amble along this forested road lined with residences winding along the top of the hill’s flank. First, second and third guesses are telling. We return to the two moons — one of which blinds, the other of which illuminates — and their necessary coexistence.