Peter Doig: Early Works Exude A Confident Refined Aesthete

Peter Doig

London: For many artists, their early works are a cause for embarrassment or insecurity: they represent a delicate formative period, where experimentation is abundant, and style is gradually gauged. Perhaps this is also the case for Peter Doig, but it shouldn’t be, because this exhibition reveals a young, ambitious painter, inhaling the world around him. What a beautiful – albeit imperfect – sight.

After a stint in New York, over 40 works have been brought across to Michael Werner’s Mayfair gallery in London, including several pieces being exhibited for the first time, before he had gained international recognition (he was previously Europe’s most expensive living painter). Rather, the works date from when Doig, aged 20, first moved to London, forging false school credentials in order to study at St Martin’s.

Doig’s nomadic childhood has been well-documented. Born in Edinburgh, raised in both Trinidad and Canada, he occasionally took LSD as a teenager, worked on a drilling platform, regularly slept in barns, and eventually moved to London for art school. A sense of place is often resonant in Doig’s work, and his indelible childhood could well be a reason why Doig’s paintings are inspired by recollections and memories.

In “Contemplating Culture” (1985) and “Red Sienna” (1985), Doig created bold Renaissance hommages, yet they also strike with thick reds and yellows evocative of Miro. They promote the traditional painterly values of colour and texture, yet teem with romantic and complex ideas. Doig attempted to reflect research he did on Italian art, in anticipation of a school trip to the country. It never happened.

“At the Edge of Town” (1986-1988) is possibly autobiographical, a microcosm of Doig’s life, with a young man, clutching on to the tree beside him, cautiously gazing across a backdrop of luscious smorgasbord of trees, bushes, and vegetation. Again, we find an example of how Doig’s paintings are figurative and anecdotal, but at the same time, abstract. It is reminiscent of Gauguin’s best landscapes.

“Chez Paree” (1986) and “Burger King” (1984) personify the reactive, free-wheeling nature of Doig’s early works. He tackles consumerism, sexuality, and urbanism, while incorporating the diverse influences of Chagall and Munch. This experimentation extends to pieces like “Taboo” (ca. 1985), with evident influence from the Chicago Imagists, though the depiction of the slime-green figure called ‘Swamp Boy’ is a rare misfire in its execution.

At its core, Doig’s work is beautiful. It is undeniable that the warm colours and confident shapes in these works are made by a refined aesthete. So while his paintings may be criticised for their apparent artificiality – the fact that they are explicitly fabricated, unreal – I think it would be wrong to think of Doig’s paintings as any lesser. Instead, the fact that he paints from memory or photographs, never life itself, means that the result is actually closer to a reality: life-as-experienced.

Words: Peter Yeung © Artlyst 2014 Photo: courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery London

Peter Doig: Early Works at Michael Werner Gallery London (20th March – 31st May)


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