It is only the traveller that is foreign: Peter Doig at the Scottish National Gallery

All is still. A canoe drifts on tranquil water; in it is a person from the past or a memory of decades gone by. The figure stares straight at you. Not confrontationally, perhaps trying to communicate.  Across time, across space, through the canvas. Nearby, a woman stares into a shop window. Her feet are angled awkwardly. Her turned-away pose means that you are denied ever fully knowing what she is doing and what her motivations are. Is she crying? Both man and woman are from paintings by Peter Doig; paintings that are uncannily easy for the viewer to inhabit.

“There are no foreign lands, it is only the traveller who is foreign,” says Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson in his book The Silverado Squatters, 1883.  From this quotation Keith Hartley, Chief Curator of the Scottish National Gallery found the title ‘No Foreign Lands’ for this twelve-year survey of Doig’s work. The exhibition begins in the early 2000s and includes work finalised only a few weeks before the show opened in Edinburgh.  It takes you through the development of Doig’s paintings: demonstrating his starting points, often found photographs, sketches in paint; and final works that can include several variations on a theme – sometimes from years apart.

Hartley’s choice of title is appropriate for many reasons.  The artist was born in Edinburgh, and identifies as Scottish, but moved to Trinidad aged three.  He spent his adolescence in Quebec, Canada before moving to London in the 1980s to study art.  The migration didn’t end there; he returned to Canada temporarily to live in Montreal before settling in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  His works pick up both the South American heat and the frostiness of the Canadian landscape. He has never really painted London; because, the artist explains, his works are “forms of escape.”

Doig’s work has mass appeal and his success has endured. Why is this?  Having won some major prizes that helped to establish his career in the early 90s, he went on to command millions of pounds for each painting. He has stuck to the medium of paint even as its popularity has peaked and fallen. His success could be something to do with his ability to combine the autobiographical with the common experience.  Or do with the way he pulls together the threads of 20th century modern art and makes them relevant to modern life.

The Scottish National Gallery has high ceilings and a series of interconnected rooms.  Doig’s work looks good in these spaces – the scale of his canvasses seems to sit perfectly on these walls.  The curation focuses on grouping reoccurring themes.  The focussed expression of a man playing table tennis, a woman on roller skates disco dancing, a man walking covered from the sun by a parasol, groups of people in a boat, a canoe silently drifting on the water.

In vitrines, material from his archive is presented.  Photographs that provided the first spark of inspiration, early sketches on paper, details taken from one source or another that combine and alchemize into the final work – or series of works.  He has really laid himself bare.  The interpretation describes his painting is built up in layers, combining real locations, memories, scenes from photographs or re-enactments; sometimes resulting in paintings that are “doubly fake.”  Elsewhere this evolving process of working and revisiting the same ideas can produce work that is almost abstract.

Paintings such as Purple Jesus, which shows a contemplative Christ figure under an inverted rainbow, seem to possess a child-like spirituality. Others remind the viewer of a child wandering alone in the landscape, coming across scenes that they don’t fully understand.  This could be because the places that Doig lived as a child he revisited as an adult. It could also explain how as a European in South America he has avoided being criticised for being Post-colonial. It would be a mistake to consider Doig contemporary art’s Paul Gauguin, as unlike the French early-20th century artist he avoids applying erotic intrigue to his exotic surroundings.

Doig does; however, refer to the modern painters, Impressionists in particular, as influences.  His very pink Snow paintings he says were inspired by Monet’s “incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour.”  He also seems to embody the Impressionist mission statement to focus on depicting light and everyday subject matter.  But there are some key differences between the Impressionists, or Post Impressionists, and Peter Doig. The first is that his landscapes shimmer and sparkle with a sort of fantastical unreality. And the other is that sometimes his figures, especially when they appear alone, seem to be experiencing an existential crisis.

The lonely or preoccupied figures are like protagonists in a feature length narrative that is only fleshed out in the mind of the viewer.  Doig is a passionate film fan and, along with local artist Che Lovelace in Port of Spain where they lived, set up ‘Studiofilmclub’ to screen movies. He told Frieze magazine in 2008 that the only image in his work to come directly from a film was the man in the canoe, which he said came from Friday the 13th, a 1980 film directed by Sean S. Cunningham.  However, many of Doig’s works have a cinematic flair or look like they were inspired by the scratchy appearance of a celluloid film strip in motion.

This exhibition should be seen by anyone wondering whether painting still has resonance in the 21st century.  Those sceptical about contemporary art in general may also have their views challenged.  His works possess a rare quality of hovering between transience and boldness, masculinity and femininity, childish wonder and an adult weariness.  Over a 12 year period the artist has told and retold many narratives in paint, produced many iconic paintings and created an impressive body of work. His pictures sparkle in the Scottish National Gallery – perhaps they feel they have come home.

No Foreign Lands continues until 3 November 2013 and will tour to Montreal in 2014.

First published in Art world magazine, Shanghai

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