Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Heart of Old San Juan

As mentioned in an earlier posting, the Tate have a major Peter Doig retrospective at the moment. When I looked round last week I was interested to see some of the more recent paintings, having been to an earlier show at the Whitechapel in 1998. The Whitechapel exhibition leaflet, shown here, starts predictably by explaining that Doig is like Friedrich and Turner, but also not like them - it compares his attitude to nature and artifice with contemporaries Jeff Wall and Lari Pittman. Gerhard Richter is also referenced, along with Munch, Hopper and Magritte. Despite all these correspondences, it's impressive that Doig's art of the nineties remains so distinctive. All his work is interesting, although the exhibition at Tate Britain gives the impression of a fairly intense five-year burst of creativity at the start of the decade, encompassing landscapes inspired by, for example, the film Friday the 13th, Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation apartment, various Canadian winter scenes and an empty field at night.
The Tate leaflet here shows a detail of Country Rock (1998-99), with the painted archway under the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, which it describes as a nondescript 'in-between' space. It quotes Doig: "A lot of my work deals with peripheral or marginal sites, places where the urban world meets the natural world. Where the urban elements become - literally - abstract devices." A similar kind of painting from the same time shows an empty basketball court, The Heart of Old San Juan (1999). However, these relatively people-free human landscapes have been replaced in Doig's more recent paintings with scenes that include figures derived from found postcards, snapshots or earlier art. Somehow, these simpler, more figurative paintings seem even more mysterious than his landscapes. As Adrian Searle has written "genuine disquiet pervades Doig's newest work. The man climbing a palm in one appears oblivious to the shadowy forms in the sky filling the rest of the canvas. The stories are dissolving, leaving only emptiness and murmurs."

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