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Published 22/05/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Peter Doig

Tate Britain, London
5 February-27 April 2008

Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
30 May-7 September 2008

Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt
9 October 2008-4 January 2009

by JAMES WILKES

A mid-career retrospective at Tate Britain is enough to cement the reputation of any artist, or else open them up to a critical lashing. Going on the evidence of his best works, Doig deserves his accolade, despite the impression that a more selective hanging might have shown the range of his paintings without an accompanying variation in quality.

The exhibition opens with paintings produced during and immediately after Doig's return to London, aged 30, to do an MA at Chelsea. These works already show certain tropes, themes and styles to which Doig has since returned repeatedly: the mirrored reflections of water or ice, isolated figures and hallucinatory details derived from film stills or photographs, a sense of haunting and menace evoked with incongruously rich colours, and large immersive canvases with scattered encrustations of paint acting as limpet-like reminders of their materiality.

In 'Young Bean Farmer' (1991) and 'The House that Jacques Built' (1992), the architecture of rural Canada asserts its presence, people only present as a moving blur against yellow fields, or else invisible behind blank windows. And although isolated human elements dwarfed by the landscape in 'Milky Way'(1989-90) and 'Jetty' (1994) might suggest the Group of Seven, there is more here than an evocation of the sublime landscapes of Doig's youth. An interest in disjointed narrative and the extremes of psychedelic and paranoid moods, appropriation from disparate sources, and a formalist concern with screening, surfaces and framing make this a body of work that appeals to both the intellect and the senses.

It has to be said that one advantage of such an extensive show is that paintings made over several years can be grouped together, as in a series of works centred on Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Briey, Northern France. Doig filmed his approach to the apartment block though dense woodland, and used stills from the film as the starting point for a long-running series of paintings that investigate the interplay of architecture and screens of trees. Interposed branches were employed in 'Young Bean Farmer', but in paintings like 'Cabin Essence' (1993-94), the device is no longer used to create the impression of a hidden watcher, but to investigate in a cooler, more objective fashion the phenomenology of vision and movement. Doig's choice of subject clearly offers compositional rewards, the sinuous verticals of the foliage contrasting with the horizontal geometry of Le Corbusier's building. Richard Shiff's catalogue essay notes the continuity of this project with Cézanne's, exemplified in paintings like 'Farm in Normandy, Summer' (1882),1 whilst also seeing the obliterating snowflakes that abound in Doig's winter paintings as an extension of this interest in screening.2

The exhibition has been arranged so that these winter and snow scenes are hung together in the next room, and this proves to be their undoing: the most captivating, such as 'Ski Jacket' (1994), are undermined by paintings such as 'Cobourg 3 + 1 more' (1994) and 'Pond Life'(1993) which, for this viewer at least, remain in the realm of kitsch. Doig's paintings regularly run this risk, but are usually saved by their disturbing undertones.

In 'Echo Lake'(1998) the disturbance is literal. Dark trees frame an acid green and rose foreshore, and reflect in a placid lake. A police car sits in the clearing, a temporary disturbance of the pastoral, but its reflection dissolves into the rocks surrounding it. The painting's focus, however, is a police officer, whose hands are cupped around his face. He appears to be calling across towards the viewer, and has stepped into the streak of white that delineates the shallows. The ripples around his feet are starting to spread, upsetting the dark stillness of the water: a second disturbance that will not be absorbed.

'Echo Lake' is one of Doig's several compositions loosely based on scenes from the 1980 horror film 'Friday the 13th', and its ripples and disturbances could be read as clues towards an evolving ethics of appropriation. Two years ago, the critic Jan Verwoert wrote an insightful essay on this topic in the catalogue for the Tate Triennial (which featured a painting by Doig), in which he linked the political stasis of the cold war to the insistence, in cultural terms, on the emptiness of the signifier and the death of history, whilst contrasting this to the re-emergence of multiple histories in the 90s, linked in turn to a seeming superabundance of meanings: meanings as revenants, as ghosts returning from the dead to haunt the present.3 This, he argued, differentiates the appropriations of today from those practiced twenty or thirty years ago. It is not enough any more to simply contemplate one's appropriation, because 'when you call up a spectre, it will not content itself with being inspected, it will require active negotiations to accommodate the ghost and direct its actions or at least keep them in check'.4 Today, the ripples will spread.

Dominating a room of other large works, '100 Years Ago (Carrera)' (2001) is a starkly ugly painting. The colours of the sea and sky react unpleasantly together, their surfaces blotchy and curdled. A garish orange canoe stretches the entire length of the piece, and seated in fierce solitude within it, a long-haired man stares straight out. Canoes have featured in many of Doig's earlier paintings, drifting out of 'Friday the 13th', their occupants slumped in deathly poses. In this work, the ancient mariner returns to life, fixes us with his glare, and demands to be recognised and lived with. This may not be one of Doig's most seductive paintings, but it is a significant one.

It is also one of the first canvases that Doig based on photos taken during a residency in Trinidad,5 where he spent four years of his childhood and where he now lives and paints. The last two rooms of the exhibition are given over to such recent work, and again there are occasional dips in quality (Doig expresses a lack of satisfaction with one of these paintings in an interview published in the catalogue).6 Nevertheless, there is a spare grandeur in his latest pieces, such as 'Man Dressed as Bat' (2007) and 'Figures in Red Boat'(2005-07) which promises an interesting new direction: large areas of linen have been left raw or stained by natural processes, fields of colour bleed away into a miasma of solvent and details are picked out cautiously. Having struggled productively, it would seem, with a difficult legacy of tropical fantasy inherited from Gauguin and Henri Rousseau, Doig's technique appears to be evolving again, in a turn towards abstraction. This exhibition provides an opportunity to experience the development of a talented painter whose atmospheric works defy catalogue reproduction.

References

1. Shiff R. 'Incidents'. In: Nesbitt J (ed). Peter Doig. London: Tate Publishing, 2008: 21-43 (39)
2. Ibid.: 30.
3. Verwoert J. 'Apropos Appropriation: Why Stealing Images Feels Different Today'. In: Ruf B and Wallis C (eds). Tate Triennial 2006: New British Art. London: Tate Publishing, 2006: 14-21 (19).
3. Ibid.: 20.
4. Nesbitt J. 'A Suitable Distance'. In: Nesbitt, J (ed). Peter Doig. London: Tate Publishing, 2008: 9-20 (19).
5. 'Peter Doig and Chris Ofili in Conversation'. In: Nesbitt, J. (ed.), Peter Doig. London: Tate Publishing, 2008: 113-122 (118).



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