A fictional world of colourful hues surrounds me as I go from one work to another. I feel like I’m between cultures and countries at Peter Doig’s show at the Michael Werner Gallery, London. Peter Doig born in 1959 in Edinburgh, has lived in Trinidad since 2002. He studied at Wimbledon School of Art, Saint Martins School of Art and Chelsea School of Art. He is a professor at the Fine Arts Academy in Dusseldorf, Germany. In reviewing this exhibition, I’m interested in contemplating Peter Doig methods, techniques, and content in order to consider how an acclaimed artist approaches the process of painting in paradise.
Looking at Peter’s, Red Man (Sings Calypso) 2017, I was curious about the symbolism in this painting. The central figure in his swimming trucks is the film star Robert Mitchum when he visited Trinidad in 1957 and recorded an album of Calypso songs. The character in the background references a man who lives on the island of Trinidad and often walks around the beach with a snake wrapped around him impressing the tourists. The painting also references Laocoon’s struggle in Greek mythology when Laocoon and his two sons are killed by serpents sent by Apollo. My interpretation of the painting is that it suggests the inequality between the tourists and locals. Robert Mitchum’s film star sunburn, is in strong contrast to the naturally, dark, local man and his snake, as the two worlds collide.
Peter Doig has previously stated, “we don’t always have to know what our painting is about”. What I like and enjoy about Peter Doig’s paintings is that they give the viewer the impression that they are free to float around Peter’s imagination without look for meaning. The symbolism in the paintings however, is very striking and encourages the viewer to ask questions about the artist intentions, neverthelessless for me they are a distraction in seeking to understand what the painting is really about.
I believe the found photographs used by the artist are only a starting point. They add another layer to the painting, but the subject in the images only helps to get the piece started. Once the painting is underway the subject matter becomes irrelevant for the artist. Quite often the meaning in Peter Doig’s paintings is unavailable and unexplainable. The subject is like a desolate dream that is almost unfathomable for an outsider.
The paintings are more about the daily painting process. Peter has created a signature style on the canvas where he can play with open creativity within a broad set of rules. He loves keeping things interesting where no two painting are painted the same. In my view, he wants to communicate his distinct impression of what he sees in the unique colours from the tropic paradise of Trinidad but feels compelled to highlight the dark side of life too.
Peter paints openly and quickly when starting a painting in order to get some colour on the canvas. His signature figurative painting style comes from creating a richness of paint through layers. The cloth soaks up the washes, and the background colours come through the thin layers. Peter, at times, has been known to leave his paintings exposed to the weather at his studio to take advantage of the marbling effect from watermarks. When the paint dries, there are rich details from the runs, splatters and drying process, which partially look like stains. He also sometimes masks out areas before the layering process to leave silhouettes of figures coming through the washes.
The second stage of Peter’s painting process is working on top of the layers, adding figures and objects as the experimenting continues. He uses an impasto technique that carefully balances with the layers below, so they don’t dominate. It is common in smaller works of art for many artists to feel free to increase the risk-taking. It is the same for the smaller works in this show; the risk-taking is exciting with more vibrant kaleidoscopic tones. The mark making pushes the boundaries and adds even more mystery.
I find Peter’s painting technique profoundly absorbing and fascinating. There is no plan or an imagined endpoint; the open exploratory journey can go in any direction. It is clear that Peter enjoys the process of painting everyday in the studio.
The darkness in the Trinidad paradise that underlies the work adds an edginess to this dream world. Through the danger of risk-taking Peter offers the viewer a better appreciation of the world. The colours and the process have an impact on the human soul; each painting expresses its own spirit and soul.
In the Peter Doig show, he asks open questions about what a painting paradise could be. The symbolism helps add layers of meaning that may lead you down a rabbit hole. For me, the paintings are about the process of painting. Exploring different methods and techniques, and opening the doors to a fictional land where everyone’s soul is welcome.