How does one approach Concrete Cabin II, an emblematic Peter Doig work? As a primitive man, coming across signs of some fabulously advanced citadel? As an explorer, coming across signs of a departed civilisation? Or perhaps as a voyeur spying from the dark greenery of the forest? Or maybe even as an inhabitant of the building, having finally found their way home after traipsing, without a map, through dense woods?
Concrete Cabin II, 1992
Whatever narrative approach you take, it is apparent that Doig is trying to conjure up a double world, one which contrasts the position of the painting’s character with another, perhaps more magical world, further behind. (I say character; sometimes this is true for the viewer as well. As a viewer, you have the uncanny feeling that you are meant to be in or on the edge of a Doig painting, almost immersed in the landscape he depicts.) Such magical worlds are often beguiling but they are also unsteadying. You never have a full grasp of what’s going on. Your perceptions cannot quite fathom what it conveys.
Pond Life, 1993
Sometimes these double worlds are conjured up by simple reflections. So we have the reflected house in the frozen waters of Pond Life, the painting a kind of pastoral Hopper updated for the postmodern age. Or the solitary figure in Blotter, who, perhaps standing on fragile ice, gazes intently at the lake below. But other worlds are not always born from reflections. In the diptych Ski Jacket, it is as if the one blank wing of the canvas had been loosely pressed on the other and then unfolded to produce a Warholesque reproduction on the other side. Alternatively, the majestic scope of his landscapes allows him to conjure up a more heavenly presence such as in Milky Way or Gasthof zue Muldentalsperre. But the division of worlds may also be more mundane. A solid wall, diminishing into the distance, blocks the walker in Laypeyrouse Wall from the azure world to his left. Sometimes there is not event any physical obstruction but simply a magnified sense of distance, as in Jetty or Hitch Hiker.
Milky Way, 1989-90
Conjuring up such double worlds creates a wonderfully evocative but eerie sense of emotional distance in his paintings. This is particularly visible when he indulges his habit of placing solitary figures (or lorries as in Hitch Hiker) on the canvas. Where on the earth is the Young Bean Farmer going? The sole figure on Jetty is not doing anything … yet why is he so suspicious? He is inhabiting a world you are just not sure about.
It is this sense of distance that have led many to alight on Doig’s references to horror films and the more general emotional darkness that seems to inhabit his paintings. However, while there is definitely an eeriness in his paintings, there is also something peaceful. The broad landscapes may have a cosmic dimension but they are peaceful, serene. The presence of the phosphorescent blobs in many of his paintings suggest something more playful and benign – Ariel-like spirits hovering in the human world. Other, more recent paintings, like the aforementioned Lapeyrouse Wall, seem belligerently neutral.
But whatever narrative or atmosphere you perceive in Doig’s paintings, they fall apart when the canvases, teeming with gestural life, are viewed close up. From a distance, Doig’s slabs of paint coalesce to form their ambiguous narratives. But close up the artist inhabits a gestural world of abstraction. Doig’s interest in double worlds extends to a formal level.
It’s not easily visible from reproductions but easy to witness at the gallery. But try looking at the heavy tears of phosphorescent light that inhabit so many of his paintings and see how they become invasive white blobs when seen from nearby, as if they had simply been dropped on the paint flowing around them.
Detail of Concrete Cabin II, 1992
Or witness Concrete Cabin II, for instance, where both the trees and the building can be extracted from the figurative landscape to produce a modernist grid of horizontals and verticals; the coloured slats and white beams of the housing block forming a Mondrian-like grid, with the upright trees and their perpendicular branches forming a more organic echo of this.
Detail of Pond Life, 1993
Most spectacular is the effect of Pond Life. From a distance, a riotous tangle of long grasses is visible, acting as some kind of barrier to the viewer walking into the picture; take a few steps closer and the painting and distance becomes flattened, as they are reconfigured as sinuous serpentine strands of paint.
Superficially you could see such marks and whorls as the painterly wish to relinquish control, to indulge the physicality of thick paint. Moreover, Doig’s full-on rainbow palette gives the impression of a childish intensity, of an exaggerated and a messy lack of control. But step back again and you the paint is applied in a masterful way, conjuring up his incomplete narratives and huge layered spaces with shifting notions of fore-, mid- and background. Doig has managed to chart a path through the worlds of both figuration and abstraction and attested to the pleasures and potential of both.