One of the main events of the last couple of months in London has been the show of Peter Doig’s recent paintings in the new Michael Werner gallery. This is a two room space (at least I could only find two) on the first floor of an intimidatingly smart Mayfair townhouse. I felt a little under rehearsed as I pressed the buzzer to enter the building which has no outward appearance of housing a gallery at all.
I have spasmodically followed his ascent to the heights of the art world since I first came across him at a shared studio space in King’s Cross in the 1990s. He was already enjoying some commercial success, and it was not impossible to predict that he would continue to gain fans. His work is accessible (read: it’s figurative), yet is sophisticated and ambitious enough to command ‘significance’ and hence command top prices. Now, it’s time for:
Dodgy Theory #1
Painters seem to be fundamentally divided into three types. The first type being the Bacon/Picasso type who are unafraid to confront reality and depict what they find, however dark it may (or may not) be. The second type (Neo Expressionists for example) love to wallow in angst and horror, but are in reality as scary as a cardboard set on an old monster movie. The third type (and I would call Gauguin and Matisse exemplars of this one) seem to banish all darkness from their work. Perhaps David Hockney in L.A. too.
Obviously this is a massive oversimplification, but I’m getting quite attached to it anyway.
I would suggest that Peter Doig is one of last. From his studio in the Caribbean his perspective is naturally different to that which informed his early work in London. It seems there is a new idyll – not Tahiti, or Provence, but another secluded spot where the sun shines over the golden sands. This type of painting is trying to rediscover innocence – for the artist and for us all by extension if the painting works. If they do not work paintings of this type are gratingly false in their disingenuous naiveté. But it is a measure of Doig’s charm that his paintings do not grate. There is enough painterly subtlety in them to beguile you, while you absorb the calm vibes. The draughtsmanship is strong, but not imposing in the way that say, Frank Auerbach’s is. The colours are vibrant but not to the extent that you ignore the subject matter. These are very considerate paintings.
When I first saw his 1990s paintings they seemed to suggest prisoners’ art – yearning for some kind of freedom. Nowadays they seem to have acquired that freedom, but they seem to have a perverse vestige of nostalgia for the grime of London. Or perhaps some other kind of darkness – there is a hint of it for me in the pervasive pavement gray he uses in a number of these paintings. For now we, the viewers, have visited the idylls – or at least their earthly locations – and it is that much harder to reinvent innocence.