The Musee Des Beaux-Arts in Montreal is currently hosting what it claims to be the first comprehensive survey show of Doig's work in North America, freshly arrived from the artist's birthplace, Edinburgh, Scotland. My first encounter with his work was at the large Power Plant show in Toronto in 2001.
Doig was born in Edinburgh, and now lives in Trinidad. Canada has tried in many ways to claim him as a national hero. As is stated in the press release, he grew up in Montreal and returned there for some years in his late twenties. I've heard Doig described as having spent his formative years in Canada, being a Canadian expat who lives here and there. But I do remember meeting Doig during his opening at the Power Plant through an early supporter of his work, Bruce Bailey, and detecting a fairly authentic Scottish accent.
The work that Doig first gained attention for was very much indebted to the overlooked and tragic Canadian painter, David Milne, who spent most of his life living in remote isolation, sharing his suffering with his wife and children, and making extremely unusual, stark landscape paintings dominated by austere branches, odd areas of black and a sense of nature as oppressor. Early on Doig made heavily overworked paintings that owed much to the lines and sensibilities of Milne. Other early works referenced Group of Seven painters. They were unusual when he was making them, which drew the attention of a certain type of art lover. Many of the works in the show at the Power Plant—seemingly appropriated images of skiers, glittery magic hour mountain vistas—were coming out of a corner of the art scene that no one had seen was developing. The most appealing aspect of the work, for myself and others was that it was beautiful. Finally.
Peter Doig, Ping Pong, 2006-2008, Oil on canvas, 240 x 360 cm, Private Collection, Promised gift to the Tate. Foreground: Peter Doig, Study for Ping Pong, 2008, Oil on paper, 30.5 x 25 cm; Collection of the Artist / Photo The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, Denis Farley.
Doig went on to be hugely successful, the details of his life accompanying all extant writing about his work. Doig fits perfectly into contemporary art history. Gaugin in Tahiti, Doig in Trinidad. Although this isn't important, it does add a perfect shiny bow of art feeling to his enterprise. His paintings are notoriously beautiful. I myself believe it's important that artists be free to feel as if they can make good-looking work, that they don't need to be encumbered by research and investigation. After all, visually appealing things constitute a great portion of art historical treasures.
What I can see over the course of twelve years of Peter Doig painting, regardless of his success or his hometown, is that his ability to craft attractive paintings hasn't been pushed into the weirder areas his earlier work promised, but has become instead lightly poetic and somewhat nostalgic for a different time, in painting.
Doig loves Edvard Munch as he should. A lovely part of Doig's work is the recurrent images. His paint handling can feel Munch-y. It also sometimes feels like an amalgam of winning modernist styles. It's these paintings—brushy landscapes of Trinidad, an occasional figure or natural element—that seem too easy and fun to make. I don't, however, sense that he's trying to riff off the idea of a European artist living in Trinidad. Doig has always seemed sincere and heartfelt. But if there is not a joke inside these paintings, they're weaker in that they engage in an expert Sunday-painting style. He can and does make beautiful work. But these are only that, and feel like pleasant sampling. The repeated images of the table tennis player, Lapeyrouse Wall (2004), Pelican: while they continue intelligently to act as Munch's painting did, do not hit you in the stomach. The things Doig feels compelled to keep painting over and over again, which artists should be free to do, aren't things that I feel offer much new information to the viewer or have any emotional import. They're beautiful replications nonetheless.
As much as the paintings of tennis players have a Vuillard-at-play quality, they're weird. The best paintings in the show are. A painting of a wall of flags painted on it, if that's what it is, is singularly bizarre and good looking. A painting of two men diving, although again painted in a very fundamental and recognizable way, is strangely composed and brightly colored. It has an uneasiness that keeps you looking. The other paintings look great when you look at them, but they're missing the pull of the weirder work.
Peter Doig, Poster,‘Grizzly Man’ by Werner Herzog, 2005, Oil on paper, 90 x 65 x 3 cm; Ringier Collection, Switzerland.
These problems of beauty lacking any subtext are solved perfectly in the film posters that are included in the show. These have become well-known paintings, and having seen them for years in reproduction and now seeing a great deal of them in person, they confirmed for me that they were his best work. Having to work on a smaller scale, Doig's painting style is different, more intuitive and personal. Combining text with imagery is the ideal answer to the missing element in the other works. The poster for Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog shows a big rudimentary bear and a happy naked white man in a toque with a weird dick against a simple mountain background. The poster for Xala is perfectly simple and washed out, but the figures are as articulated and informative as in Manet. Pure Chutney is a beautiful colour study and graphically expert.
When Doig is too easily taken up with nostalgia and drawn towards the poetic, the work seems beautiful but light. The film posters force him to deal with an interesting juxtaposition, or rather a compounding of graphical elements expressed poetically. By taking graphical poetics and reinterpreting them into the poesie of painting, Doig leads us down a path of weird beauty.
[Image on top: Peter Doig, Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) [Bateau rouge (Garçons imaginaires)], 2004, Huile sur toile, 200 cm x 186 cm.; © The Weston Collection /Photo Jochen Littkemann]