Published  30/04/2002

Peter Doig 100 years ago

Peter Doig: 100 years ago

Victoria Miro Gallery, London
13 April - 22 May 2002

‘100 Years Ago’ is the name of Peter Doig’s current show, the first in London since his Whitechapel exhibition in 1998. It is also the title of one of the paintings, where the canvas is divided into three horizontal planes by the horizon line and a long orange canoe respectively. In the canoe sits a figure who might be an ancient mariner but looks more like a Jethro Tull Album cover from the 1970s or an ageing rock star.

The mood of these paintings is disquieting; they hover between a dream or fantasy world and reality. Reality is conjured by the inclusion of references to actual experience: the two figures by the entrance of the winding path with its connotations of a pathway leading to another realm of existence, are late 18th century military figures with large moustaches and large hats. ‘Petruschka’ is written at the side of the canvas (misspelled), and while the painting resembles a theatrical backdrop (evocative small boat on dark water at night) it in fact refers to an incident when the artist was a student, working backstage at Covent Garden as a dresser where he and a friend got into costume themselves.

Although there are various contemporary anecdotes and references in the paintings of Doig’s exhibition, as a group they represent a curious state of mind where specific place, anecdote or commentary play no part. There are elements of American literature or film, unfamiliar poetic references leaving one feeling undecided about how they belong in a contemporary perspective. Adrian Searle writes, ‘So the painting is like a memory, or a souvenir. But it is more than a memento. It is history painting as fancy dress, the scene as fake as a moustache stuck on with spirit gum. That said it is still a scene from life, but one that has drifted into fiction. We want to believe it, and to lose ourselves in the painted world, if not exactly to imagine checking in to the Gasthof. It is hard to tell where truth lies, what has been seen, what has been made-up, and what stories we are telling ourselves’. There may well be a new interest in Symbolist art that is evident in the exhibition of Casper David Friedrich at Somerset House, to be reviewed next month in Studio International. It is a great pleasure to be able to view fine painting with its directness and ambiguity and to dwell on its meaning and place within a wider contemporary context.

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