Peter Doig’s current exhibition at Michael Werner’s in NYC comprises the paintings he created at the start of his career between 1980 and 1988. Those were his formative days when he was studying his BA and Master Degrees at the Central Saint Martin’s in London. The Scottish-born artist was raised in Canada, and during his summer breaks he returned to Toronto, stopping in New York along the way. These loosely autobiographical works depict Manhattan and London as if seen from above and brim with allusions to pop culture, classical statuary, Ab Ex splatters, Benday dots, graffiti, and Matisse’s red rooms.
I must confess that I love his work, in general, but these images in particular I find truly great. Don’t get me wrong. They are not great from a formal point of view. However, they contain the ambition and the talent of a young man that literally wants to grab the world with both hands but is scared of it. While his later works are melancholic in a rhetorical way, these works are scared and happy at the same time. They vibrate with the optimism and sadness that only very talented people feel.
In an interview for Open Ceremony Art Magazine, art critic Alexandre Stipanovich misses the point by insisting on seeing these images from the perspective of the artist’s, at this point, canonical compositional structure of low repoussoir and overwhelming background. In other words, his questions are so concerned about the distribution of the elements and figure on the pictorial surface, that they empty these images from that metaphorical and literal vertigo that they convey. Let me show you how art criticism can kill a painting:
Alexandre Stipanovich asks ‘In your paintings Contemplating Culture and Red Sienna, what’s the relationship between the characters in the foreground and the city they’re contemplating?’. Peter Doig answers ‘There is no real relation between the figures and the city. The figures are based on two marble statues surrounding Marmi stadium in Rome’s Foro Italico (formerly Foro Mussolini). There are 60 huge statues; each is sponsored by an Italian province and depicts a different sport. When I visited the stadium in 1983, I was struck by the scale of the figures, how they displayed their bold masculinity, and the way they seem to confront each other aggressively. I wanted to animate this further in the paintings by reenacting the biblical story of St. Sebastian. I used the Marmi figure representing archery to fire the arrows. I chose Siena rather than Rome as the setting because I liked its scale and the buildings—the Duomo and the tower at the Piazza del Campo’.
It really doesn’t matter what these human figures are alluding to and how they are positioned. The point is that he establishes a dialogue with the artistic canon of the time, represented by the Italian Transvanguardia of Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi in order to deconstruct it. His dialogue is not with ancient Rome but with the Italian of the 80s. There is nothing truly intelectual about the way he uses the image but rebellious. He mixes artistic genres and plays around with the human figure as a proxy for himself and his fears. He wants to put the New Image in its place. He doesn’t know what to do with it. He hesitates whether to join them or despise them.
Similarly, his depictions of NYC are saturated, hysterical and appear as seen from above, more specifically, from a plane. He sees the city as a destination but at the same time like a ghost. The city is something paradoxically within and also out of reach. London and NYC, in these paintings, seem to vanish in the air like the future…or life, for that matter. From this point of view, the contrast between the pigmented pastoralism of his later works and these works show a man in two very different stations in life. The former hesitates while the latter is far too selfconfident. Both show a man who is scared but scared of what? In his own words:
‘The paintings in this exhibition were made in the 80s. It was such a different time in my life; I was in my early to mid-20s then, whereas the island works were made from the age of 40 onwards. When I was making the early paintings, I was absorbing all that I saw and experienced, and regurgitating it into my paintings, with almost no filter. I had little regard for materials, in the sense that I urgently needed to make things with whatever was at hand. I did not have an interest in making a “good” painting, but more a need to get the imagery down. Later on, I became more interested in painting and paint––the materiality of it, its possibilities, etcetera. And because of this, I slowed down a bit. I started to look at other peoples’ paintings as a source of inspiration, rather than only looking and taking from the world outside of “Painting.” I came to realise that sometimes, it takes more confidence to make a quiet painting than a loud one’
That slowing down is evident and shows him as a career guy who got tamed by Uni, the institution and the art market. It is as if his rebellion only happen when he painted for himself and not for the market. I must confess that in its carelessness, this exhibition shows how careful and calculated his later work has been. Another revelation about this work are the drawings and works on paper. They are the real thing. They are so revealing of his mindset that one wonders why he decided to part with them.
Peter Doig seems to have made a decision to repeat himself a while ago and that might be the reason why he decides now to show this work. Is he asking for help? They are possibly my favourite work by him ever. I just love this show for all the right reasons. Just a thought.