Peter Doig at Fondation Beyeler
I’ve always loved the Beyeler Foundation’s building. Embedded in the Berowerpark in the Basel suburb of Riehen, the structure itself, designed by Renzo Piano, is a beautiful coming-together of porphyry-covered walls, a glass roof and a glazed façade looking out onto the corn fields and vines covering the Tüllinger Hills. That altogether painterly synthesis of nature, concrete and art always brings to my mind two particular works: Caio Reisewitz’s “Casa Canoas,” a photomontage that depicts the glass-walled house on the outskirts of Rio built by Oscar Niemeyer for himself, which disappears amidst the lush vegetation (some real, some collaged) that presses in on all sides; and Peter Doig’s “Concrete Cabin II”, a 1992 painting that portrays another signature building by a different master of Modernism, Le Corbusier. The latter building—know as “Unité d’Habitation” apartments, in Briey-en-Forêt—was conceived of as an ideal living space, but soon fell into disrepair and was derelict by 1973.
In the early 1990s, Doig used a handheld video camera to record the disorientating experience of moving through the surrounding woods towards Le Corbusier’s building, and worked from the still images that he captured to produce a painting where the architecture appears and disappears within the screen of branches. In both Reisewitz’s and Doig’s work, we witness a mutual invasion: the buildings reach out to embrace the forest but the trees fight back, ultimately conquering the inside space. It’s the concept of the Beyeler Foundation’s architecture taken to its extreme, fatal conclusion. Interestingly, from November 23th this year, the Foundation itself will house a series of Doig’s “Concrete Cabin” paintings—together with almost all of the major works produced by the Edinburgh-born, Trinidad-based (following two long stints in London, separated by a spell in Canada) painter, since 1989.
The exhibition is full of splendidly flourishing burst of vegetation, rubbing shoulders with abandoned places, and with what the curators of the show call “the hidden abysses created by loneliness.” In Doig’s paintings, something vaguely threatening and half-nightmarish always emerges: forsaken houses, wraith-like figures, foggy spirits that seep from shadowy jungle groves. Looking at the painter’s overview here on display, everything feels liquid and dizzy, full of sticky drips and sodden passages that bring to mind pools of sweat, as though the paint has not yet dried (which may not be far from the truth: it is quite common for Doig to be still working on some pictures just a few days before the opening, as happened here for the monumental wall painting in the Renzo Piano Room). The entry point to the whole show seems to be the exploration of that liminal space between statuses, what Sean O’Hagan has called “the porous hinterland between acute observation and deep, transformative imagination.”
It is not by chance that the exhibition, which does not follow a chronological order, starts with some of the works that best represent this “hinterland”, specifically, his well-known canoe paintings. Consider “100 Years Ago (Carrera)”, from 2001, where a canoe runs end-to-end over a three-meter-long canvas, seemingly drifting on water of untold depth. The man sitting on top is reminiscent of a somber castaway amid a swamp-like desolation. Many have pointed out that the core of the success of this very popular image is precisely the peculiar atmosphere it evokes, where you can almost dream yourself into the painting. Yet, it is not just anyone’s dream: is Doig’s dream, directly challenging the viewer’s own memories and childhood fantasies, in a dark, twisted way. For the work, the artist took inspiration from a group photo for the blues-rock band The Allman Brothers (he subsequently got rid of the band, leaving only the Messianic-looking bass player Berry Oakley), therefore twisting a pop reference into a hallucinating dreamscape. The viewer is left with no clue as to the allusion, just the feeling of something vaguely familiar. It’s like reading a Scooby-Doo treatment by Alice Munro.
Let’s be clear, this is a game that Doig masters perfectly: he takes his extraordinary visual memory, allows it to coalesce with his personal reminiscences, and then plays with those of the viewers. He channels the ghosts of his artistic forebears with fluidity and daring—from Gauguin to Wilson Morrice, via Rothko and the Fauves—mixes them with cut-out figures from familiar postcards, photographs or touristic brochures, adds a pinch of fervent imagination (of an itinerant traveller at heart) and thus generates a whirlpool that can simultaneously almost sweep you off your feet and transport you to several places of the mind. As Jennifer Higgie perfectly surmised, “These are grand narratives that have no story to tell except the one you want to tell yourself, yet they draw you in as effectively as a camp fire; images of exile that make you feel less alone.”
While looking at another of Doig’s canoe paintings, “Swamped” (the silhouette of a boat afloat on a sluggish bayou, thick with reflected sulphurous yellows, russets and reds) I was taken back 20 years, to a comic strip I used to read every time I was sick when I was a kid, Corto Maltese. Suddenly, I had the clear vision of a particular vignette depicting Corto sadly rowing on a kayak in a South American jungle. The similarity between the actual painting and the projected memory of that strip struck me as if an identical tale from two travellers who, unknown to each other, visited the same country. As Doig himself stated, “The canoe does not represent to me what it does for many others.” And in this banal, yet very true, statement may just lay the power of Peter Doig’s oeuvre (and the reason behind all those hunting figures): after all, his paintings, just like ghost stories, rely on the potency of our unresolved pasts.
From: Mousse Magazine, Issue 46, December 2014