In Conversation: Artist Peter Doig And Tate Director Nicholas Serota

Peter Doig

During the Preview week of the Venice Biennale Artlyst was privileged to attend a conversation between Peter Doig, the Turner Prize nominated artist and Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate. The talk took place in front of Doig’s new paintings at the beautiful historic rooms of the Palazzetto Tito (until October 4th 2015). The exhibition curated by Milovan Farronato is truly spectacular! This is what they had to say:

NS: We’re standing in a room and in a place that has hosted over the past decade and more some really magnificent exhibitions. I remember Marlene Dumas, Alex Katz and Richard Hamilton of course and it was probably the excellence of those exhibitions that partly encouraged Peter to want to make a show in this space with its very beautiful light. I really only wanted to say a few words before we invite Peter to say something about the exhibition. Peter was born in Edinburgh but then moved quite quickly away from the United Kingdom for quite a long time, for 20 years living in Canada and then obviously for tremendous importance to him as a child, living for a period in Trinidad: a place to which he returned much later. For the last 15 years or more Trinidad has been the subject or starting point for so many of his paintings. I find it rather remarkable that Peter, who at this very moment has a large exhibition in Basle which has now moved to Louisiana, should have the appetite to make another exhibition which is absolutely characteristic of him and that he should simply want to show a group of new work. 

He is an artist who, in my experience, is always taking risks, calculated risks, but he is always pushing himself into new places. We were talking a moment ago about the variety of work in these several rooms: the different scales of his work, the fact that he works so intensively on paper. He somehow never stands still.

Obviously everyone recognizes a Peter Doig painting despite the absence of an absolute signature. When painting he is always pushing himself to new places, sometimes letting go of things but always adding new parts to his vocabulary. He works so intensively on paper, some of those parts come from his observations of other artists, just look at the bag he’s carrying over his shoulder (Henri Rousseau) or Goya. They’re all tied together with his own biography, his own fantasy and his own ability to pull together an extraordinary range of subjects and an incredible technique. It’s interesting to see some of these oil on paper works on paper here, Peter’s technique is getting ever richer. It really is amazing the way in which having started working on watercolour on paper and now oil on paper you can feel this accumulation of experience.  I’m going to stop and let Peter to talk a little bit about his experience, the motivation behind this group of works and why in Venice?

PD: How does one become inspired as an artist? In the early days of studying you are constantly looking for inspiration, you are always carrying a little sketchbook around in your pocket. Many of my friends who are artists still carry sketchbooks and pens, constantly looking at things; you never really know where inspiration will strike and something you see captures your attention. The lion in this case, which is a motif that’s in quite a number of the paintings, came about from living in Trinidad and seeing the motif of the Lion of Judah which is quite common there.  It has almost become a ubiquitous pop icon but also very folk in the sense that people are inspired to make a painting of a lion on the wall. Hence The painting called A Cloud On A Wall, is inspired by a man I saw painting the lion on the wall. The lion of Judah is of course from the Rastafarian movement, but it’s also become a kind of stand in, for a kind of spiritual, Christ like figure. I’ve seen so many of them over the years and I’ve taken so many photographs, they often are very characterful, either to do with the hand of the artist or just the interpretation of this animal. So that was the inspiration for a lot of these paintings.  The big yellow painting in the far room (Rain in The Port of Spain) is actually for me, quite a sad painting because within the city of Porto Spain where I live one whole city block in the centre of the city is occupied by the jail. It’s a garrison built by the British some 150 / 200 years ago, It’s still occupied and very overcrowded you never see inside it, it’s locked shut. From the experience of people I know who have been in there, it is absolutely awful, but the sounds of the city including the carnival kind of waft in and waft out. It has a real presence in the centre of this city. Over the course of the last 15 years I have taken many photographs of these long walls. That painting is a mixture of looking at the lion’s cage in the zoo, observing the lion in the zoo and sort of turning it inside out with the lion on the exterior of the city jail.

NS: How do the small paintings relate to the large paintings? How do the works on paper relate to the large paintings because you have just described in a way a whole set of collages in your head of images that come together. How does that work for you? What is the relationship between the small and the large? What makes you make a large painting?

PD: Works on paper are usually the first thing that happen. This is something that comes quite direct to me. For example, the small painting on paper, the very spare one of the horse and rider that came before the actual horse and rider, the big painting evolved from that. I started the big painting and would make many, many works on paper as the paintings developed. The small paintings often take as long as big ones funnily enough and they are often worked in a different way. I can actually be working on my lap and really scrape the surface off, spin them around. It’s a different way of working than the big paintings. Of course, big paintings you can’t physically work with them that way. Big paintings because the scale is very important, the scale within the picture but also dealing with the periphery, beyond the periphery. I think is very important. One of the things I like about this gallery space is that we have 4 very large paintings and you can get very close to the paintings to experience the surface, in a way this is very unusual in big vista like gallery spaces. Here, your face is on the surface and you actually see what it means to be a painter, you are actually dealing with the weave of the canvas and how light hits the paint on the side, things that you tend to forget about in many circumstances of viewing paintings.

NS: People have often said that your paintings have a very cinematic quality and here we are in Italy and I’m conscious of the fact that very recently they’ve reissued, in Britain at least, Fellini’s 8 1/2 and the kind of fantasy that is expressed in that kind of cinema. Cinema has been very important to you. What do you see as the relationship between cinema and your own work?

PD: People say that my paintings are cinematic in feel but I have only made one or two that make direct reference. Cinema is very important to me but a painting as opposed to a photograph is much more cinematic in the sense that it has all these layers of information that go beyond just the imagery that is depicted. The experience of making the painting, for instance in the Horse and Rider painting there are so many things to look at that surprise even me because the passage of time that it took to paint.

NS: Everyone makes film these days but no one is really talking about painting, so why do you keep painting?

PD: I like painting because it’s just me doing it, that’s very special for me you don’t have to talk to anyone else about it, you don’t have to involve anyone else. Also, I don’t have the type of narrative to make a film, people often say why don’t you make film because your paintings are so related to the cinema. I haven’t got a film to make, I have pictures to make but I haven’t got a film to make…. at the moment. I think the bad man on the horse could be a film but at the moment it’s just a something that hopefully evokes a filmic type experience for the viewer.

NS: The wonderful thing about a painting is the ambiguity of the painting. That is to say it can be read in so many different ways and then, as you say, it’s a still image and therefore it’s there also for contemplation. Were these paintings made quickly or over a long period of time? Do you complete individual paintings quickly or do you sit in the studio looking at them for a long time? How do the drawings work in your process, do they come in when the painting isn’t making any progress and you find the need to go somewhere else?

PD: The paintings in the most part take what I consider to be a long time, not a long time of labour but a long time of decision-making. I start paintings and then put them aside. For instance, the self-portrait type painting in the exhibition, Horse and Rider, that was made over 3 to 4 years. I started with the figure then I got stuck, I added elements over time. The decision-making in my type of painting involves becoming comfortable with areas over a period of time and the drawings are an aid to make the next step in the painting. They all act as working drawings really.

NS: So obviously, in one way or another all the paintings are autobiographical but now you are actually introducing yourself. You just referred to one painting Horse and Rider as also probably in some ways a self-portrait, where does that come from? Is that Goya?

PD: Yes, Goya. No 1 London which is a house, near Hyde Park Corner it’s Wellington’s house that houses the great portrait of Wellington on horseback.  I kind of wanted to make a painting of a bad man or someone playing a bad man.

NS: So, you had to put yourself in there?

PD: I had to find a face and not that I believe that I’m bad.  Where I live in Trinidad there’s a history there as you may or may not know.  The history is often referred to in the carnival.  There are many characters in the carnival that go back to colonial days and a lot of the characters playing the bad man like the midnight robber in a way it’s me in that position sort of dark but also quite comic.

NS: We’ve talked a bit about cinema. What about literature and reading? You’re sitting in Trinidad, are you reading? These images often suggest a narrative. So have you ever illustrated a book or would you illustrate a story in that way?

PD: Well, interestingly enough about 2 years ago I met the poet Derek Walcott and over the last 2 years we’ve been making a book together. It started off by him writing about some of my paintings and it’s now evolved into me responding to new writing that he’s making. This is all a very new project but it’s been fascinating working with Derek because he’s such a brilliant visual writer. His work is so evocative in a way that’s vey special for me. To read his interpretation of what he sees in the paintings and then to be taken back into his own life in Trinidad and Canada. He taught in Edmonton for a while. It’s been a fascinating experience for me.

NS: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving us a few clues. I don’t think anyone came here today expecting an explanation but to have a few clues into how to look at Peter Doig’s painting is a great privilege so Peter thank  you very much indeed..

Words transcribed by Sara Faith Photo P C Robinson © Artlyst 2015

Peter Doig: Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa Palazetto Tito Dorsodure 2826, Venice

5th May – 4th October


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