Cabins and Canoes:
The Unreasonable Silence of the World
For many years, it has been my wish to organize an exhibition devoted to Peter Doig, one of the most important living painters of our time, and it is an honour to be the first institution in China to host his one-man show. In fact, Doig’s only exhibition in Asia dates back to 2003 with his participation in the group exhibition, ‘Happiness’, at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, making this his first solo-exhibition in Asia. Despite not having exhibited in China before, Doig is no less a prominent figure in the Chinese art world than he is in the West. His painting style can be compared to some of the works of Zeng Fanzhi, whose reference to traditional Chinese landscape paintings and use of specific colors create a dream-like aura, similar to Doig’s works.
What makes Doig unique from many of his peers is that he is a true ‘painter’s painter.’ One of the main characteristics of his work is that the image does not take its meaning from its origin, but from the materiality of the paint itself, as well as the process that was required for its creation. To me, this exhibition is especially meaningful, due to the beauty of painting, which stands in stark contrast to the political reality we are confronted with today. This exhibition is meant to be a haven for the eye and soul before we must return to the outside world. If we are made to remember beauty in this way, we might remember to act with beauty in our everyday lives. It is up to each and every one of us to create the world we live in, especially in terms of contributing to the human condition.
I would hereby like to express my gratitude to the curator, Francis Outred, who has played an essential role in this project on many different levels, both with his vision for the exhibition and procuring of the loans. I would also like to thank the staff at Faurschou Foundation for their continuous dedication to what we do with attention to all the details.
Francis and I would like to extend our special thanks to Peter Doig, Parinaz Mogadassi and Jeffrey Alford and to the various lenders who have made this unique exhibition possible with their generosity.
In addition, we would like to extend special thanks to Olivia Leahy for her curatorial assistance, as well as Kristian Eley and Cecilia Pedersen at Faurschou Foundation. We are also grateful to Zoe Ainscough, Diane Baldwin, Anna Campbell, Steve Keyse, Mindy Melrose, Chris Petre, Stephanie Rao, Sophia Skalbania, Nicola Steel, Alice Vincent, Steve Ward, Alice Whitehead and Phil Young for their assistance with the exhibition and catalogue.
Cabins and Canoes
When he was just two years old, Peter Doig moved from Edinburgh to the Caribbean island of Trinidad. It was the start of an itinerant journey that would lead him across continents: to Canada, at seven, where he spent his youth surrounded by frozen lakes and snow-filled forests; to London, at nineteen, where he attended art school at Central Saint Martins. As a student, he drifted between disciplines, working backstage at the English National Opera and dabbling in experimental film. In the late 1980s he returned to Montreal to work in set design, before London – and painting – called him back again. In 2000, as his star was ascending on the international art scene, a trip to Trinidad sparked memories long buried. Two years later, as his father had done before him, he relocated his family to the island – it is a place he now calls home.
Doig’s disjointed past lies at the heart of his work. It finds its keenest expression in two persistent strands of imagery: the cabins and canoes. Together, like recurring reveries, they chart the wanderings of his psyche. The canoe drifts silently between tundra and tropics. The cabin lies dormant in dense pine-scented thickets, veiled by blizzards and branches. Like talismans, they quiver beneath shimmering membranes of colour, or lie submerged within tangled tendrils of paint. Their forms emerge from abstract swamps of pigment, only to dissolve again in the blink of an eye. Suspended within lonely backwaters and ravines, they are dreamlike projections of foreign lands: of places half-forgotten and re-imagined from afar.
For Doig, the cabins and canoes are more than just recollections. Ultimately, they are the vehicles through which he seeks to dramatize the workings of memory itself. Filtered through disparate sources and myriad layers of brushwork, they bring about a slippage between painterly, personal and fictional histories. Optical shifts ensnare them: a splatter of paint becomes a shard of frost, a reflection in a pool or a piece of televisual static. Centuries of artistic influence – Pieter Bruegel, Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Edvard Munch, Barnett Newman, Gerhard Richter – flicker in and out of focus in their wake. Each time reality encroaches upon the surface, another layer of distance is added: an image from a long-lost postcard, a cluster of trees, a holographic curtain of pigment. With each new iteration comes a feeling of déjà-vu: of wandering in circles, losing one’s bearings, submitting to a daydream. Deeply evocative yet eternally elusive, the cabins and canoes are projections of the artist himself: nomadic beings, perpetually caught between worlds.
It was at Chelsea School of Art in the late 1980s that Doig first established himself as a painter. His contemporaries – many of whom would later be branded as the ‘Young British Artists’ – favoured conceptual modes of expression, often underpinned by shock tactics and irreverent humour. Doig, however, absorbed himself in the tactile properties of pigment, fascinated not only by the evolution of its handling, but also by its capacity to weave its own history across the picture plane. It was in dreaming of Canada from London during the 1990s that the cabin first came to prominence in his work – and, in doing so, provided a framework for his roaming painterly technique. “The structures I started with were pretty modest”, he explains. “I wanted to make some homely paintings. You have to remember the kind of art that was being exhibited at the time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s most art had a clean, contemporary, slick look … I purposefully made works that were handmade and homely looking, and this was often the subject of the work as well.”1 What began as an aesthetic reaction to the work of his peers gradually became a tool for psychological abstraction. “I became more interested in what buildings represent”, he recalls. “How, in a very modest structure, did someone decide to place the windows? Often they seemed to be anthropomorphised.”2 From the very beginning, the cabin was conceived – like paint itself – as something that could harbour memories: a physical entity riddled with untold stories.
Often refracted through the lens of magazine photographs and holiday brochures, several types of ‘cabin’ can be detected in Doig’s early work. Houses half-remembered from his childhood in Quebec make their first appearances in Hill Houses (1990-91) and Iron Hill (1991), interrupting the vast landscape like hallucinations. Gradually, they fill the picture plane, veiled by falling snow in Rosedale (1991), shrouded by trees in Pine House (Rooms for Rent) (1994), and doubled in the dark, glassy lake of Camp Forestia (1996). Elsewhere, they simply linger on the horizon: the silent homestead in Young Bean Farmer (1991) and Night Bean Farmer (1993), or the distant dwelling in Daytime Astronomy (1997-98). Some are familiar: the ‘executive log cabins’, common to 1970s Canadian newspaper advertisements, which peer through layers of paint in Pink Snow (1991) and Pond Life (1993). Others are alien: the haunting building that seems to decay before our eyes in Road House (1991), The House the Jacques Built (1992) and Kriket (Grasshopper) (1998-99). Together, Doig’s cabins cycle through his early oeuvre like variations on a theme. Uniting them is a feeling that they are fundamentally beyond our grasp: vestiges of human presence that are impossible to pin down.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991). Through a tangle of frost-lined branches, the modernist home of architect Eberhard Zeidler in Rosedale, Toronto lies silently beside a crystal pool. Isolated in the heart of the wilderness, the building hovers before the viewer like a moment of clarity within a clouded daydream. At the same time, its presence is deeply unsettling: an unexpected trace of human life that instils a primal, voyeuristic discomfort in the viewer. These emotional slippages are borne out in Doig’s technique: as we peer through the fractures of the surface, the building dissolves into a blur of painterly abstraction. Its architectural reality ceases to exist as we realise it is nothing more than a collection of tiny, individually-painted segments separated by a rhapsodic web of lines. Up close, it rushes to the frontal plane of the canvas, only to recede as soon as we step back. Like memory itself, it is a perpetually moving target: one that preys upon our psyche whilst fundamentally resisting all attempts to unravel it. If Doig set out to create ‘handmade and homely’ pictures, his execution ultimately renders them unheimlich.
This concept would be magnified in a group of works that ran parallel to Doig’s Canadian reveries – the ‘Concrete Cabins’. In 1991, as a member of La Première Rue, Doig had participated in the renovation of the first three floors of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Briey-en-Fôret. Originally designed as a new solution to democratic living in the aftermath of the Second World War, the project’s utopian mission had since been abandoned. “Whereas other buildings had represented a family or maybe a person, somehow this building seemed to represent thousands of people”, Doig has explained. “… I went for a walk in the woods on one visit, and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew … seeing it through the trees, that is when I found it striking.”3 Freshly painted white and gleaming like a light in the darkness of the thicket, the building’s emotional resonance had a profound impact on the artist. Simultaneously foreboding and deeply alluring, it stood as both a beacon of promise and a symbol of lost hope. Seen through the trees, it appeared before him like a recollection – buried, elusive, vacant and untouchable.
Back in the studio, Doig attempted to amplify this sensation by placing himself at progressive levels of remove from his subject. Whilst in Briey, he had filmed footage of the building in colour, which he then converted into a series of black and white stills. Several were reproduced as photocopies; others were brought directly into the studio, where they inevitably became tarnished with splashes of paint. By re-encountering the image through different lenses, Doig created a matrix of distortions that mimicked the process of looking back – and, indeed, of looking through. As with The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, Doig consciously picked out the building’s façade through the foliage, creating an indelible fusion of foreground and background. The rigor of its grid-like structure is held in tension with hypnotic flurries of paint that cascade in meandering torrents, or scatter the forest floor like powdered chalk. In places, thick globules of pigment interrupt the surface like fragments of bark taped into a scrapbook; elsewhere, they seem to mimic the splatters of paint that accumulated on the original film stills. Each time we try to navigate this gauntlet of schisms and ruptures, our gaze is deflected, redirected and – ultimately – forced back outside the picture plane. It is a realm we can never inhabit: a lost dream, like the Unité itself, that can never be fully recaptured.
Like the cabins, the canoes, too, function as metaphors for memory. However, if the cabins embody the struggle to recapture specific moments – to psychologically ‘return home’ – the canoes are vehicles for re-enacting drifting states of consciousness. “In Canada the canoe is an emotive kind of a national symbol”, Doig has explained; “… An incredible symbol of freedom and movement and all that sadness that goes with it. The shape of it really fascinates me. It’s almost like the perfect form.”4 Whilst the cabins were conceived as traces of long-lost human presence, the canoe offered a much more fluid structure: a vessel that could slip seamlessly between worlds past and present, real and imaginary. It is in the canoe paintings that we find the greatest mutation of source imagery: where the cabins largely spring from personal recollections, the canoes draw together a variety of cultural, popular and filmic tropes. In these works, references and invocations blur as easily as a boat gliding between banks; each time, we reach a new destination, but are not quite sure how we arrived.
This dynamic is particularly evident in Doig’s early canoes. Here, the artist capitalises upon the motif’s poignant Canadian overtones, infusing his paintings with a deep sense of yearning. The source image for these works, however, could not be more distant: a still from the 1980 cult horror film Friday the 13th by Sean S. Cunningham. Whilst staying at his father’s house in Grafton, Ontario in 1987, Doig was struck by the famous scene in which Jason shoots out of the water to grab his only survivor from behind, dragging her into the icy lake. As Doig explains, “I saw this scene and went out to the barn and made a painting of it that night … In fact it was the least horrifying moment of the film. It’s more like a romantic dream when you remove it from its context.”5 He elaborates, “I was struck by its relationship to Munch and also by the plain beauty of this still moment amidst all the carnage.”6 This ambiguity lends the image a powerful sense of unease. Is the figure dead or asleep? Is the landscape around her simply a projection of her imagination? It is a scene of anticipatory tension that, in many of the paintings, slips effortlessly into nostalgia and longing. Interestingly, in Cunningham’s film, the girl wakes in hospital to discover that the entire ordeal has been a dream.
This shifting ambience comes into sharper focus when tracing the genealogy of these works. Friday the 13th (1987) is a direct appropriation of the film still, whose presence is strongly felt in Swamped (1990), White Canoe (1990-91) and Ghost Canoe (1991). In these works, the boat and its lone inhabitant are subsumed by a swirling painterly vortex that disperses like cloud formations across the surface of the three compositions. Read together, they offer an impenetrable whirlpool of reflections, refractions, doublings and distortions. As with the cabins, we find ourselves searching for a shard of familiarity amidst the abstract layers of pigment, unable to shed the feeling that we have – somehow – been here before. The residual overtones of the film, and the lingering evocations of Canada, combine to create a memory-space that is fundamentally caught between disparate realms. As Doig’s practice progresses, the canoe’s context begins to shift. In Jetty (1994), the boat is reduced to a drop on Cameron Lake, unmoored from the swamp and cast adrift upon a wide-open stretch of water. In Night Fishing (1993), it reappears through veils of ghostly mist, guided by a new, faceless stranger whose identity remains uncertain. Just when the nightmare of Friday the 13th seems to have been vanquished, Canoe Lake (1997-98) draws us back into its depths. This time, the vision is clear and unambiguous; the dormant figure is brought into focus amidst a sea of lurid green. Somehow, in the process of distraction, deviation and diversion, we have arrived back at the image in its most lucid form: a moment of déjà-vu that strikes as if from nowhere.
Over the course of Doig’s practice, the canoe increasingly comes to signify transformation. In 2000, he undertook a short artist’s residency in Trinidad: his former childhood home, to which he would return two years later. During this period, his works underwent a significant transition. The thick, textured layers of his earlier oeuvre were abandoned, and replaced with iridescent washes of translucent, tropical colour. As the consistency of his paint began to thin, a new type of canoe took shape – a holographic sweep of red suspended on glimmering bands of water. Inside sat a new protagonist – a bearded figure, out of joint with his surroundings, who meets our gaze with a vacant, hollow stare. The image was taken from inside cover sleeve of the vinyl Duane Allman: An Anthology, which featured the members of The Allman Brothers Band seated inside a long red canoe. Doig’s appropriation isolates the bassist, Berry Oakley, in a number of canvases including 100 Years Ago (2000), Red Canoe (2000), Island Painting (2000-01) and 100 Years Ago (Carrera) (2001). These works dramatized the sensation of returning to a place long forgotten. The canoe mimics its watery surroundings, blended and elongated with delicate, liquescent brushstrokes. At the same time, the figure is an imposter: an incongruous apparition who sits uneasily within his new home. Together, man and canoe form a screen that embodies the distance between memories half buried and suddenly rekindled.
Through this extensive process of migration, the canoe has since become a figment of Trinidad itself. Where it once quivered with nostalgia for Canada, it now resonates with overtones of ancient island culture. In Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) (2003-04), the canoe becomes a rowing boat that carries its spectral passengers into a timeless tropical haze. A hallucinatory miasma of painterly layers dissolves and rebuilds itself before our eyes: colour rains down the length of the canvas like a monsoon, splintering into delicate rivulets that flatten all sense of perspectival depth. As we look closer, however, we are suddenly transported back to the world of Swamped. Murky shadows linger beneath the boat, threatening to engulf the composition entirely. The forest stands sentinel in the background, awash with dark chasms and vertical divisions. Plant life hovers on the surface of the water, interrupted by reflections and ripples. We have, in short, returned to the painterly mire of menace and magic that first buoyed the canoe on its journey. We have come full circle – but we have also, almost imperceptibly, moved onwards.
Ultimately, this dynamic may be said to characterise Doig’s practice as a whole. His paintings – and, indeed, his studies – do not exist as discrete entities, but rather as points along an ever-expanding continuum of imagery and technique. Etchings and works on paper do not always prefigure their canvas counterparts: instead, they morph and intermingle within a cyclical stream of consciousness. Images recur like rhapsodic variations, viewed from different angles or filtered through alternative media. It is a process that mirrors the way memories transmute in our head – they collide, fuse, entangle and disintegrate, emerging and fading in incalculable patterns. This, too, is how Doig treats his materials: his paint, his sources, his influences. A haphazard splatter of pigment can become a scattering of powdered snow; just as easily, it can morph back into an abstract veil of texture. A pre-First World War postcard from Germany can become the stage upon which he tells stories of his youth; an image of a nineteenth-century Indian fishing village can evoke thoughts of Trinidad. Monet’s diffuse lighting can disperse into Pollock’s painterly gestures; Cézanne’s handling of pictorial space can merge seamlessly with Rothko’s. None are fixed or certain; all are held in a perpetual state of flux. The entire operation is a melting pot marshalled by two constants – the cabins and canoes.
Charley’s Space (1991) is one of Doig’s earliest cabin paintings. Charley was a security guard at Chelsea School of Art, who came into the studio one night and exclaimed “Huh! Space!”. The remark prompted a revelation that would remain with Doig for the rest of his career: that every viewer finds their own space within the picture plane. “Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it”, he has explained.7 In Charley’s Space, the house on the horizon is incidental to the gigantic purple circle that hovers at the centre of the composition: a gateway to the fractured dialogue between paint and memory that rages within its snowy depths. It is Doig’s most abstract ‘cabin’: a hollow shell in which we are invited to linger, before we lose our way in the blizzard altogether.
Perhaps, then, the cabins and canoes go beyond their original function as motifs, structures and metaphors. They are, fundamentally, spaces – demarcated sections of the canvas through which we attempt to engage with its complex painterly narratives. They are spaces without clear beginnings or ends, and spaces that will never resolve into concrete realities. But they are spaces through which we can journey, and spaces that – like the most powerful memories – might temporarily bring us home.
1, 2, 3: Peter Doig, quoted in Kitty Scott, ‘Kitty Scott in Conversation with Peter Doig,’ in Peter Doig, ed. Adrian Searle et al. (London: Phaidon, 2007), 16.
4: Peter Doig, quoted in Ulf Küster, ‘Working with the Image: A Conversation with Peter Doig’, in Peter Doig, ed. Ulf Küster (Basel: Fondation Beyeler, 2014), 13.
5: Peter Doig, quoted in Adrian Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’, in Peter Doig, ed. Adrian Searle et al. (London: Phaidon, 2007), 70.
6: Doig, quoted in Scott, ‘Kitty Scott in Conversation’, 10.
7: Richard Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, ed. Judith Nesbitt (London: Tate Publications, 2008), 33.
Peter Doig: The Unreasonable Silence of the World
In a field of deep green, concealed by tall blades of grass, a solitary figure gazes up at a vast, opalescent expanse of sky. A lone group of houses lingers upon the horizon, surrounded by pale trees thick with stippled impasto. In the distance, silent and still, a luminous pool quivers like a mirage. Dense geological bands coalesce beneath his feet, spiked with clusters of blood-red petals. Banks of cloud billow above his head, illuminated by the kaleidoscopic rays of the sun. Caught between the spheres, he occupies an enchanted half-way territory: the strange no-man’s-land that exists at the meeting of earth and sky, where order gives way to the immaterial.
As the figure contemplates his transitory condition, the world around him begins to change. Hints of snow glimmer in the lush, verdant grass. Hoarfrost sparkles upon the blossoming trees. Traces of ice glisten on the surface of the water. We begin to question whether the halcyon glow of the summer sky might in fact be the pallid light of some northern tundra. There is a slippage, too, between day and night – a spellbound aura neither dawn nor dusk. As the figure drifts between waking and sleeping, his surroundings wither and bloom in equal measure. Like a long camera exposure or grainy time-lapse, the figurative becomes abstract and alien. At times the paint is thick and impenetrable. Elsewhere, it hovers upon the surface like an aqueous membrane, or drips down the canvas like rain upon a window. Each time we try to fathom its depths, our gaze is deflected by the elusive schisms in its surface.
Filtered through Hans Namuth’s photograph of Jackson Pollock lying in the grass outside his studio, Daytime Astronomy (1997-98) captures a moment of profound revelation. It was as a seventeen-year-old boy, working on Canada’s wide-open Western plains, that Doig first became aware of the void that separates man from the world around him. “Man is a grasshopper here”, he recalls reading at the time; “a mere insect making its way between the enormous discs of heaven and earth.”8 As we observe the horizontal figure, we cannot help but imagine the vista above him: the shifting light, the migrating patterns of colour, the fleeting hints of a world beyond the veil. A jolt occurs in our vision, and suddenly we see this aesthetic transplanted onto the canvas before us in paint: blurred chromatic fields, luminous apertures, impenetrable textures. Through its surface, the painting projects the hallucinogenic experience of watching the sky – and, indeed, of remembering it. A disarming temporal shift occurs as we rebound from the recesses of the artist’s memory to the painterly present. Like the work’s protagonist, we too find ourselves in a strange twilight zone, caught at the crossroads between the familiar and the unknown. Painter and subject, viewer and canvas – man and the universe – are suspended in an irresolvable moment of tension.
Two years later, at the dawn of the new millennium, Doig was completing an artist’s residency in Trinidad – the island where he spent his early childhood. He was struck by the remarkable sense of déjà-vu he experienced on arrival. “I remembered the architecture”, he recalls; “I could remember smells. I could remember roads and routes. It’s a potent place visually.”9 One day, he witnessed a strange and disturbing incident. “We were on a remote beach and we saw [a] guy in the sea, bobbing around with a pelican”, he explains. “He was bobbing in this swell, quite far out, and clearly wasn’t swimming. At first I thought he was rescuing the pelican, that it had broken its wing. Then it became clear that he was trying to drown it. And then he came onto the beach and as he walked along the shore you could see that he was swinging the pelican around by its neck. The way that the pelican was looping and looping and looping, he was obviously wringing its neck.”10 Realising he was not alone, the man turned to meet Doig’s gaze: “He glared at us as if to say: You shouldn’t be watching this.”11 The horror of the event, however, had already sealed itself in his memory.
Back in London, half a world away, Doig chanced upon an old postcard in a junkshop. In grainy black and white, it portrayed a man pulling fishing nets along a deserted beach in southern India during the nineteenth century. Recollections began to stir: of a stranger wading through the shallows, of the lifeless creature floundering in his wake. Completed several years later, following Doig’s return to the Caribbean, Pelican (2003-04) was one of several attempts to re-engage with the memory of that fateful day. Translucent sheets of colour saturate the canvas, tumbling down the picture plane in shimmering holographic layers. Predator and prey flicker in and out of focus behind this painterly curtain, oscillating like distorted fragments of film. Pushed to the brink of abstraction, the work’s near-cinematic surface stages the fractured mechanisms through which the mind attempts to process the past. Mediated by a photographic relic from another time and place, it captures a haunted moment of voyeurism, refracted through the artist’s psyche like light through a prism. As in Daytime Astronomy, Doig depicts an instance of alienation: a disquieting moment of uncertainty that forced him to question his own presence. As we struggle to navigate the ambiguities of the surface, we are, momentarily, prompted to do the same.
“Man stands face to face with the irrational”, wrote Albert Camus. “He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”12
Camus’ words come to mind when looking at Doig’s paintings. Despite their historical separation, there is an undeniable resonance between the two. For Camus, human existence is defined by man’s insatiable desire – and eternal failure – to achieve reconciliation with the universe. His characters exist in a state of everlasting solitude, wandering like exiles through the vast and indifferent territories of nature. The ‘absurd’, for Camus, is born of the tension that arises between man’s quest for reason, and the blank, ‘unreasonable’ silence of the world around him. Isolated within foreboding landscapes, and rendered unattainable through their execution, Doig’s figures express this very condition. Filtered through the turmoil of his painterly surfaces, they are interminably mise-en-abîme. “I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world”, says Meursault at the end of L’Etranger (The Outsider).13 In Pelican, death fails to disrupt the tranquil paradise of the deserted cove; in Daytime Astronomy, the figure remains divorced from the shifting landscape around him. The scrambled surfaces of these works dramatize the intangible nature of memory; both repeatedly resist our attempts to untangle them. They declare that union between the viewer and the painting – between man and nature – is ultimately impossible.
Like his protagonist, Camus, too, was an outsider. He was a Frenchman in Algeria; a Catholic-turned-atheist in a Muslim country; a fatherless child raised in abject poverty by an illiterate, half-deaf and partially mute mother. He became an intellectual leader of the Resistance during the Second World War, operating under a variety of false identities and code names. Doig led a similarly itinerant, if somewhat less troubled, youth. Born in Scotland, he moved to Trinidad at the age of two, before relocating to Canada just five years later. He settled at art school in London during the 1980s, where he remained for most of the following decade, using half-remembered scenes from his Canadian adolescence to contemplate the workings of memory. His gradual return to Trinidad in the early 2000s prompted an important transitional phase in his art, dominated by one particularly distinctive ‘outsider’. His vacant, indifferent stare confronts us from the depths of Red Canoe (2000), recurring like a spectral vision throughout several works from this period. Imported from an old album cover sleeve and suspended within an empty ocean vista, he remains permanently misaligned with his surroundings. He is a cast away – an outcast – cut and spliced from another realm. If Doig’s oeuvre summons “the unreasonable silence of the world”, it arguably finds its most direct expression in this singularly haunting image.
Surveying the rest of Doig practice, however, it becomes clear it is not only his figures who embody Camus’ existential paradigm. In Swamped (1990), it is primarily the canoe itself that fails to achieve reconciliation with the landscape. Like a solitary beacon within a murky stretch of marshland, it gleams from the midst of the lagoon, illuminated by the white glow of the moon above. All around it, Doig weaves a surging pool of matter that moves seamlessly between lucid reality and abstract delusion. Innumerable painterly textures collide and intermingle: thick swathes of impasto, thin veils of colour, coarse eddies of pigment. The chromatic spectrum shifts from deep algae-infused green to rust-coloured red and muddy burnished ochre. At times, the trees on the horizon seem to rush to the frontal plane: at others, they recede into the distance like illusions. As foreground and background oscillate, our sense of perspective is repeatedly misdirected. Within this compound painterly vortex, the canoe remains aloof, unmoved by the ripples, ruptures and reflections that encircle its form. In certain lights it seems to speak of Canada – of beauty, romance and mystery. From other angles, it rekindles the horror of its source image: a film still from the cult classic Friday the 13th. We weave our way through layers of paint in search of its origins, only to realise we have been pushed outside the picture plane again. In attempting to resolve this cycle, the viewer is brought face to face with the absurd: a blank refusal of entry that, nonetheless, continues to draw us back in.
This dynamic is perhaps most evident in Doig’s ‘Concrete Cabins’. The paintings were based on the artist’s recollections of his visit to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Briey-en-Fôret: a modernist utopia abandoned on the edge of the town. Already, before Doig had even begun to paint, its condition invoked Camus: a paragon of order and reason overwhelmed by the irrational chaos of nature. This dialogue is amplified by Doig’s technique: rather than painting the building first and shrouding it in tendrils and vines, the artist picked out individual fragments through the trees, following the example of Paul Cézanne. As such – like the canoe – its walls and windows sit at the forefront of the texture, interlocking like a jigsaw with the rest of the painterly façade. In turn, its illusory status is magnified: in Doig’s world, the building does not exist as a complete entity. Like a reflection in a broken mirror, it is a vision impossible to reconstruct. Each time we approach the canvas, nature and architecture dissolve into their constituent parts: figuration is replaced by a hollow, abstract silence. There is a curious synergy between this pictorial drama and the way that the building was originally designed. Its stacked series of ‘cabins’, contained within a larger structure, offered a communal living space that was simultaneously beyond unification – a set of isolated dwellings that could never be reconciled as a single functioning unit. Le Corbusier and Camus, incidentally, had been drinking companions in Algiers.
“I am trying to create a numbness”, Doig has said of his work, “I am trying to create something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words.”14 As we stare into the dark waters of Camp Forestia (1996), or try to fathom whether Ghost Canoe (1991) has appeared before in a dream, we are struck by an inarticulate feeling of detachment. Like the Canadian wilderness or the sky at night, these paintings are worlds of which we can never fully be part. It is numbness, too, that plagues Camus’ characters. “My mother died today” says Meursault. “Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.”15 Throughout his oeuvre, Doig’s subjects fundamentally embody the lot of the artist: alone and cast adrift, journeying through a world that remains forever out of reach. Though his paintings are built like memories, they might also be seen as fleeting visions of the absurd. As we peer into the inscrutable depths of his compositions, our gaze is continually turned back on itself. In the unreasonable silence of Doig’s painterly universe, the lot of the artist ultimately becomes the lot of the viewer. We are forced to contemplate the extent to which we are all outsiders.
8: Charles Mair, ‘Letter to Toronto Globe, 1869’, in Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, ed. Ken Dryden and Roy Macgregor (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989), 19.
9: Peter Doig, quoted in Angus Cook, ‘Peter Doig in conversation with Angus Cook’, in Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, ed. Hilton Als et al. (Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery, 2013), 158.
10, 11: Peter Doig, quoted in Leon Wainwright, ‘Peter Doig in conversation with Chris Ofili’, BOMB Magazine, Fall 2007, www.bombmagazine.org/article/2949/peter-doig-chris-ofili [accessed 30 January 2017].
12: Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), 1942, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage, 1975), 31-32.
13: Albert Camus, L’Etranger (The Outsider), 1942, trans. Sandra Smith (London: Penguin, 2012), 111.
14: Peter Doig, quoted in Kitty Scott, Peter Doig, ed. Kitty Scott et al. (Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2001), 15-17.
15: Camus, Outsider, 3.
The artist’s puzzle
I am an artist a few years younger than Peter Doig and, while I am very fond of his work, I have not yet had the opportunity to fully familiarize myself with him. Upon receiving this invitation, and out of discretion, I decided to do some research on him. Below are some of my thoughts before and after my research.
[BEFORE MY RESEARCH]
As an artist who thinks in images, I often imagine other artists by looking at their works. For instance, I used to be under the impression that Albrecht Dürer was too poor to live on anything but faith, whereas, in fact, he was a successful businessman; I used to think that Giorgio Morandi lived as a hermit, whereas, in fact, he was known to travel to Venice to take part in activities from time to time. As for Egon Schiele, I used to imagine him to only indulge in the pleasures of life, whereas, in fact, he suffered through many hardships. When I first encountered Doig’s works in The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2009, I imagined Doig to be one of those sharp, rhapsodic talents. I was deeply impressed by the exhibition. What struck me was that Doig’s paintings were built upon a structure of extreme tension, filled with illusory color and an immersive atmosphere. These works evoke a number of lucid, deeply subjective feelings among the viewers. The landscapes under the artist’s brush could never appear in reality, but they would often trigger a memory from a moment in a dream.
In my opinion, Doig’s techniques meshed seamlessly with the subjects he chose. His art held a simple charm, while remaining unaffected by any trending styles during his time, choosing his own path. I took it for granted that one cannot accomplish the above without an unusual sense of passion and strong personality.
However, my assumption was one that deviated from reality, once again. Five years later, I was able to view the artist’s early paintings in London. To my surprise they stood in stark contrast to his later pieces. These pieces were a mixture of pop art, expressionism and collage. You could certainly see the diligent pursuit of a young artist within these works, but with all due respect, there was not much more I could see than just that.
This contrast left me full of surprise, as well as admiration towards Peter Doig. Doig must have endured a great amount of painstaking practice, yet throughout this daily training, he remained distinct, and, eventually, found his own voice. To me, he is no longer a mere talent, who simply strayed from the beaten path. I believe there is a valuable quality to his character that led to his success.
Every artist understands that practice can be an unbearable torture when it lacks the drive of inspiration. Artists may continuously question themselves and lose the courage to leave their comfort zone; at times, they are plagued by jealousy and desperation, and will often succumb to these feelings completely. I, myself, am in great fear of this kind of suffering and witnessed many friends give up on art because of this. Doig, however, has set an example for us by showing that calmness and tenacity can be very important in an artist’s development. Rather than simply rely on talent, I would much rather attain my goals through self-cultivation throughout my life.
[AFTER MY RESEARCH]
After reading a series of essays and watching a number of interviews with the artist, I was able to observe Peter Doig from an interpersonal perspective, and, finally, seemed very close to attaining a more accurate picture of him. Peter Doig’s outward appearance seems gentle and reserved, yet the look in his eyes is steady and firm. In his interviews, he answers questions without rushing, and the frankness and articulateness with which he speaks is something to truly admire.
After my research, I realized that I share a few things in common with Peter Doig. For example, we both insist on using the medium of painting as our main approach, and believe that painting remains a crucial means of expression throughout art history. In addition, we have been depicting landscapes for a long time. However, the landscapes we depict are not as we simply see them with our eyes; instead, they are a form of self-expression. As I do in my own works, Peter Doig incorporates a variety of different subject matter to create a balance. He also seems to watch more movies than he reads books, and goes to his studio almost every day to either paint, or wait for ideas to emerge. Obviously, Doig is also affected by the art market, and is often asked about his thoughts regarding the high bidding prices at auction. He replies that the news seems absurd to him, as an artist cannot control the fate of his works. Coincidentally, I have given the same response under similar circumstances, only Doig was able to express his opinion much more eloquently.
I am not certain if it was perhaps because of the above coincidences that I was approached to talk about Doig. Although, it might not be very reliable for artists to discuss peers whom they have never met, this opportunity allowed me to reflect on the conundrums facing artists today. I know most people imagine us artists to be graceful, illusive, and poetic in character, as well as capable of creating great works of art simply because of our extraordinary talents, but this is not a very realistic image. Peter Doig has proven this point and I no longer feel alone.
I hope he permits my saying so.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition:
Cabins and Canoes
The Unreasonable Silence of the World
Curated by Francis Outred
Organised by Faurschou Foundation and Francis Outred
Presented at Faurschou Foundation Beijing
Faurschou Foundation Beijing,
798 Art District, NO2 Jiuxianqiao Road
P.O.Box 8502, Chaoyang District
Beijing, China 100015
Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
2150 Nordhavn, Denmark
With special thanks to:
Ironflag / MARCO PEDROLLO
With assistance from:
197 x 241 cm
Oil on Canvas
ARCTIC VOLUME WHITE 170 g.
Printed & book bound:
Narayana Press, Denmark
Every effort has been made to clear the proper copyright for the material produced in this book