Lucy Keen explores the unique artistry of Peter Doig’s portrayal of the landscapes and scenes of Trinidad. Though already well-known for being exotic and unfamiliar to the Western eye, Doig chooses the familiar, and present it passionately and dynamically.
Most painters are dead. Painting itself has also been proclaimed dead by the invention of photography, according to many critics and artists. So why bother going to an exhibition and walk quietly amongst hushed white walls?
The famous painters we all learn about are legends in their own right but belong to a distinctly different generation; pre-war in many cases. I can’t imagine Matisse Snap-chatting Picasso his latest paper cut-out works “Check it out P!” They lived in studios in hidden parts of Spain and France.
Peter Doig, however, is the painter of our generation in Scotland. “No Foreign Lands” showing in the National Gallery contains works painted even this year by the photography, film and paint enthusiast hybrid. Despite the cacophonous backdrop of The Fringe walking up Princes Street, the tall pillars of the National Gallery stand out; each clad in brightly coloured plastic.
They are an echo of the colourful collection inside. Born in Edinburgh, Doig grew up partly in Trinidad- and has now returned to live and paint there from his warehouse studio in Port of Spain. He takes inspiration directly from the vibrant streets and forests there. A special blend of global nomad himself, Doig is determined to avoid portraying “the exotic” from a Westerner’s perspective in his works. Especially growing up between Britain, Canada and Trinidad- all are home to him- the opposite of foreign and unfamiliar.
His pieces are big in scale- unapologetically bold and strange landscapes and scenes, using unusual colours throughout; midnight blues, acidic pinks and greens, fresh blood reds. The stories he tells are through morose, savage and blocky figures, often undetailed with faces hidden, turned away, the paint running down to the unframed edges as if forgotten about.
Far from precious, often the pieces were bleached or watermarked, canvas manifestations of the washed-up driftwood on the Trinidadian beaches he walked along, gathering images and stimuli.
The content of the works are not anything shocking or new; a man observing in a shop window, another playing table tennis solo, a group of kids bowling for a wicket- it’s the handle on colour and composition that’s off scale- making them appear to be visually pulsating or as if you have something in your eye. At a glance some appear photorealistic- subtle expressions and shadows, particularly the key piece ‘Pelican Stag’ (2003). He flirts continuously between classical and post-modern styles -thankfully, however, without any hint of Tracy Emin in sight. The impression is that he paints whatever suits the canvas, whatever the brush organically does, whatever colour has been mixed or is left on the pallet from previous kaleidoscopic adventures.
Alongside the canvases in glass cases are sketches and photographs he’s found or taken himself- smatterings of inspiration. The structure of the collection feels like walking through the exhibition of a great friend; an art student with the kind of talent you can’t put your finger on. That is not to say that Doig’s work is amateur, just relatable. He is a not a distant legend, such as our Matisse or Picasso, but a man who would buy you a pint and talk about why he paints the way he does. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were standing behind me watching me look at his paintings- he is living and breathing and interested in what he can say about our world through art.
An unexpected highlight is his collection of handmade film posters. Poster paint is indelicately slapped on parcel paper, crude stills from the best of film noir (Doig’s favourite since childhood) and the lesser known greats. From an excess of studio space and a lack of forum for great film in Trinidad came the accidental creation of The Studio Film club by Doig in 2003. Everything from ‘Calypso dreams’ (2004) to ‘Grizzly Man’ (2005) has been shown to audiences from 4 to 400. To be able to absorb the world of colour, film and paint in Trinidad, with that darkly Scottish root, I would make that pilgrimage.