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John K. Grande

Peter Doig: Hallucinating Landscapes - Canadian Style

[ 972 words ]


Peter Doig's paintings go to the heart of the Canadian dilemma over landscape but give it a contemporary twist. While the Group of Seven saw landscape as a salvation from the excess of war and the machine age, Northrup Frye's Bush Garden definition of the landscape was as a force that surrounded Canadians in the early colonial era. Peter Doig, who lived in Canada until 1979, and now lives in Britain, draws much of the inspiration for his paintings from the Canadian landscape, and a tension has developed in his work over the nature-culture divide.

Canadiana, specifically a period photo of Franklin Carmichael, becomes the unusual source for Doig's Figure in Mountain Landscape (1997-98). This Robinson Crusoe-like figure has his back turned to us, and is in the process of painting a mountain scene. In Doig's painting, the hooded body of the painter virtually becomes an all-consuming, hallucinating landscape itself. His back is a map of open, freeform, filtered textures, outlines that look like a coastline, and painterly inscriptions. It is as if Doig's human subject had absorbed the landscape within himself and been transformed by it.

Nature still seems a place to escape to, or into, just as it was for the Group of Seven, but the haunting thought remains in looking at Peter Doig's paintings that we cannot escape social realities. They are as present in the painterly psyche of these landscape as they are in the city. Take Canoe-Lake (1997-98), for instance, a title that could have been derived from the Tom Thomson myth and tragedy, itself the subject of Joyce Wieland's classic Canculture film The Far Shore. In Doig's painting there is the immediate sense of tragedy in the slumped over figure in the canoe, but the tragedy is somehow intangible, something we cannot seize on firsthand. Strangely, this painting with its stubby grasping tree forms in a darkened background and the black foreground strip below seems a filmic allegory for that Canadian sense of perpetual loss associated with the landscape. Indeed, just as the Group of Seven or David Milne landscape provided a sense of cultural cohesion so contrary to the urban reality or First World War, its barrenness and solitude likewise implied a muted violence. Doig catches all this in the green lake's murky waters, the mute statuary of painted figure and canoe, but renders it in a void-like mediatic way. It is as if the displacement associated with today's technology has now supplanted the angst that accompanied industrialism for the expressionists.

Echo Lake (1998), a work derived from the horror movie Friday the 13th, recalls, in a strange way, New York painter Stephen Lack's bucolic suburban and urban paintings, and uses secondary media sources in the same way. Doig's scale is much larger than Lack's and the paint application is thinner, sometimes stretching right across the canvas. A police car and solitary figure with downcast face rim the distant shore of the lake. The dull sky and atmosphere conjure up this desolate setting, one that Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch might have chosen for his angst-ridden scenarios of the human condition. But Doig's nature recreation is wholly contemporary in style, even if the landscape is still northern. Post-Pop saturated colours resonate in 100 Years Ago (2000), a composition dominated by the Romantic scenario of a bearded figure in a canoe. The island that looms on the horizon, the ethereal sky and ever so blue lake waters further the other-worldly, post-Pop sensibility of a lost paradise.

While Peter Doig lives and works in London, England, these large format paintings deal with the Canadian landscape as some kind of intangible source, a place we can dream of, but never actually be in. Doig paraphrases the human condition in an altogether urban and very contemporary mediatic way. Paradise is lost, but so is any kind of utopian dream or project. Doig's earlier Concrete Cabin series drew on Le Corbusier's architectural inventions as source, his Unité d'Habitation apartment buildings in particular and this spurred him on to depict isolated dwellings, shacks and cabins, Most of these scenes are not at all utopic, instead somewhat oppressive and laden with some immeasurable burden of reality. In an earlier work on view titled Cabin Essence (1993-94), for instance, we look through a dense tangle of forest trees and only get a partial glimpse of a building, like outsiders. Nature becomes an obstruction, something that takes over and precludes a more comprehensive vision of the building. We sense something of the nature/culture divide here. Likewise, in Briey (Interior] (1999), the interior of a designer house has the same foreboding feeling as the landscape works. But here the barrens are Bauhaus-inspired interiors, linear and textural, and there are no people in the scene. The barrier, in this case, is no longer the forest or trees or even a landscape, but a ladder that leads upwards to more emptiness. Ski Jacket (1994) is a more open, joyful piece, that fuses figuration and abstraction, a treed mountain winter landscape and the silhouette of a ski jacket. It may be a less cumbersome way than the other paintings, but there is less of that sense of drama we sense in the majority of Peter Doig's art. This sense of drama and the level of tension stems precisely from the way Peter Doig exhumes and sifts through themes and scenes to do with the nature-culture divide. It's a source that continues to surprise us, just as Peter Doig's highly innovative and original paintings do.


National Gallery of Canada, August 17th - October 28th, 2001
The Power Plant, December 8th, 2001 -March 3rd, 2002

Border Crossings

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.


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