Thursday, April 2, 2009

Exhibition Review of Peter Doig

Peter Doig: New Paintings
Michael Werner Gallery & Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
January 17-March 14, 2009

I first saw the work of Peter Doig at the Saatchi Gallery in London, in 2004. Canoe-Lake, Orange Sunshine, and 100 Years Ago were the featured pieces- all of which were characteristic of his style until then: hue ridden, overcast skies consuming the background, with unlikely still waters within the foreground that were inhabited by figures that appeared detached and imaginary. I was instantly drawn to the dreamy, otherness of his subjects. My interest has shifted to the variety of technical practices, such as compositional devises and complete awareness of material the artist continues to employ.
Doig’s recent exhibition in New York displayed all new paintings and was held between two galleries; Gavin Browns Enterprise and Michael Werner Gallery. Seeing one exhibition in two separate locations was exciting and proved to be beneficial.
The work displayed at Gavin Browns Enterprise was diverse in several ways; sizes, color schemes, compositions, and in subject matter. One of the main features of this survey was a side gallery which displayed 15 works on paper. Most of these were rough, quickly rendered works that were preliminary for larger works such as Untitled (Ping Pong.) While Michael Werner gallery provided an excellent viewing of 2 versions of Man Dressed as Bat and about 8 small framed drawings in the hallway, the content at Gavin Browns provided a more thorough look at Doig’s style as of late.
Separate progressions have continued to unfold within the figural and landscape compositions of Doig’s work. Much of his imagery appears as though it is mirroring the atmosphere of Trinidad, where the Artist lives and works. This style is often compared to Gauguin tropical/tribal scenes, but the directness of the palette and the unknowingness was reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings. The prevalent condition of the land is tropical; dense vegetation, ambient water scenes, and skies that suggest comfortable weather. All of this creates a stage for his figure and viewer. Doig takes that familiar image out of context and destroys this perfect vacation type of setting, by placing solid structures at the center of what would otherwise be natural, open space.
This uncompromising notion of industrialism takes over the lush greenery in Maracas, in which a lone figure leers out from the second row of a monumental fortress that bares the appearance of a haggard tool cabinet that would be found in a old factory. While the figure appears content, it is unclear whether or not you should be comfortable with the idea of his being outsized by this structure. A similar effect takes place in Untitled (Ping Pong), in which a figure is actively invested in a match of ping-pong that is free of an opponent or ball. In addition to deciphering the narrative, the viewer is forced to deal with the presence of a blue-shade-gradation grid. I feel this addition of a grid calls the rest of the painting into question and leaves an unsettling feeling to a viewer who would prefer to see a vibrant green grass, blue water, and pretty trees.
In other instances, the artist’s gaze is within a different realm of interrupting the ground and figure relationship. In Untitled, the viewer’s attention is free to wander to multiple areas of the scene. However, the movement within the water and sky is portrayed through a variety of interconnected, round forms that consist of the top and the bottom of the canvass. The shapes in the dark sky seem to drift and push in the opposite direction of the muddy, earth-toned water, which undulates and rises at the bottom of the canvass.
This opposition of energy distracted me from the narrative taking place at the center of the canvass: a journey of cross-bearing journeymen at sea nearing land, but the land isn’t necessarily a destination. This immediately brought to mind the ideas of historical fleets, the Spanish Conquest, an allegorical scene, which heavily considered ideas of heaven and hell. While these hints are present, nothing is made clear and is left mostly democratic. This diversion, which seemed intentional and laboriously rendered, is a depiction of natural force that presents itself anew and overwhelms the rest of the scene. Appearing as a major step in a new direction for the artist, I feel it is within the same discourse as Maracas and Untitled (Ping Pong), due to the amount of abstract form juxtaposed with clear figurative imagery. It is within these subtle shifts of distortion that allows the same type of question to flow through most of his work.
“In Relation to representation, the paint thus takes up the position of the Other, that indefinable element which questions and at the same time presents its own enigma, and which both constitutes you as a subject and reveals your flaws” (Grenier 110).
I believe that to confuse a viewer with a work of art is something significant. It might be the artist who steers them to a certain place, whether it be a paradise or in the gutter, but it is the viewer who decides the character of that place. This decision is made according to the rules that Doig has made. What the viewer must go through mentally in order to follow his rules makes them an active participant of the work, and the result varies between each viewer and each painting.
The work that I saw five years ago was being produced with different goals, especially regarding detail. Currently, he is truly limiting what his viewer is seeing. Thin washes cover most of his space, where he used to navigate more with the brush. Upon first sight, it appears that the artist has gotten hazier. As you look over a vast wash, you see a consistent transformation of color. The expansive plane allows for the raw canvass to show through to depict certain areas within a body of water. These washes also seem to attach more significance to the sporadic thick brushwork. The work has shifted from owning a plethora of smaller worlds, areas that held specific attention, to being seen more as a whole.
Replacing fragmentation with dissipation has led to a type of artistic freedom. It is this willingness to reinvent that I think every artist can learn from. “One of Doigs qualities is that he has not fallen victim to stylistic standstill” (Asthoff 132). Since Doig has continued to invent separate styles that prioritize the progression of the figure and the landscape, he remains to be a primary influence of my own work.
One of the most common criticisms my work received during the residency period was to gain more control over my heavy, sometimes impulsive way of mark-making. Consequently, I am paying great attention to the type of drawing that goes into my work. It was interesting to see the similarities between my preliminary work and Doig’s drawings, because I feel he too is exploring different ways to draw and it seems as though there are similar approaches.
In addition to gaining control by using less material and embracing open space, I am at a point where I am relying on photographs, pulling compositions and figural gestures from several sources into one scene. I aim to fuse the clarity of a photograph with the distortion of memory.
One of the themes I am currently dealing with is how to conjoin the imagery of the urban with that of the natural world. The structures that are placed within Doig’s landscapes confront the viewer and force them to decide how to experience the work. I want to create a similar agitation within my viewer.
I feel more connected with Doig’s work of the past. I feel he was more invested into his paintings. This extra attention was guided towards detail, which resulted with significant contents that are missing in his latest paintings. However, he has practically stood alone in a diverse art world within his own method of figuration which he continues to reinvent. His work of the past has validated what he is currently working on and makes me excited and more open-minded for future work to come.

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