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Monday, 5 February 2018

Spotlight: Peter Doig, current painter

Cardiff is well worth a visit in February and March this year. There is a free exhibition of treasures. Grayson Perry, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro, David Hockney… but the exhibition is titled “Bacon to Doig: Modern Masterpieces from a Private Collection”, which begs a question. Francis Bacon is a household name, but who has heard of Peter Doig?
I first encountered Peter Doig’s paintings in Liverpool 1993, when trying to rekindle an enthusiasm for public and aesthetic art. It worked. That day the Liverpool Walker Gallery was displaying its annual John Moore’s Exhibition, loaded with the finest canvas magic that 200 artists could muster, like a conspiracy of beauty. The rooms were lofty, with a homely magnolia glow to the lighting. Though the rooms were silent, the air buzzed and rippled with sounds of ghostly gossip, town essence, and breezy riverbanks - sounds that came only from the works on the walls. The essence of towns and nature could be heard. 
  Among them were several novel masterpieces that I still remember well: an oil of a motorway verge as it looks when travelling fast in a car, and a large purple rendition of the gates of Xanadu, but the star that caught my biggest ‘Wow’ was someone walking on ice, by Peter Doig. Amazingly it won first prize. Amazing not because it is esoteric or an acquired taste, but simply because it is rare that, in such a large pool of choice, the public and critics’ vote matches my own. That painting was “Blotter”. 
A screen cannot do justice to the technique (though this video of his Cabin Essence series gets into the textures:  
Seeing a Peter Doig painting is as dreamlike as the descriptions suggest.  And the Cardiff show is within reach.
Peter Doig was born in 1959, studied at Chelsea and Wimbledon, then got on with it. In 1991 he had a show at Whitechapel gallery, shortly after finishing all those studies. When he was grouped with the Brit Art pack at a Serpentine Gallery show, he was the odd one out, among the Hirst-Lucas-Emin carnival, being the only artist whose works did not exist as a way of shouting “Me!”.
  This dedication to painting rather than personality might be why few people have heard of Peter Doig. His paintings have twice broken records at auction, as the highest-priced sales of paintings by a living European figurative painter. Twenty five million dollars at auction. This rather displeased his sense of aesthetics and historical validation. Doig finds the auction market to misrepresent earned values and the reasons one paints. He just lives comfortably enough to get on with his purposes: there are feelings and states of thought, which he finds to be much better manifested with paint textures and strokes on canvas than through any other means. 
Galleries both enhance and restrain the power of art. Paintings’ gossiping and singing images are contained, within the oblong cell of a wooden frame, maybe with glass like a cover slip over a living sample under a microscope. Each gallery is a stronghold, an arsenal, a quarantine to be entered with trepidation.  A gallery is like visiting hazardous patients on tantalising display in Victorian mental hospitals, each Bedlam character a barred prisoner, sometimes chained and sometimes behind sound-reducing small windows the size of a painting. Galleries hold art in bondage. And this is often a good thing, because much of the art that hits the street is barely eloquent, or is partially immature - as much a danger to its own mentality as to anyone else’s.
   We are similarly guilty of containment, and the restriction that comes from cautious safety, when we view art, and society, and nature, through a computer screen or cell phone.
Peter Doig’s work has a sense of danger, exploration… journeys in thought combined with experiences of places. 
  There is a lot to Doig, but also a lot of simplicity, and stunning technique. Some painters make you find, as you stand in the gallery, a perfect distance from the work on the wall. Peter Doig can almost make you giggle as you realise that any distance gives you the perfect level of detail.  Wherever you stand, what comes in through your eyes and sprays out into your brain-filled globe, is perfect in how it talks with your thoughts. What the works might be about becomes blissfully obvious, and also mysterious, and unimportant. The paintings do all of this. See them in the flesh. See how you feel about them.

How Peter Doig approached and created his series of paintings from walks in the surrounding woodland during his participation in the collective restoration of the abandoned 1957 Le Corbusier building: Peter Doig’s Cabin Essence, 1993-1994

  National Museum, Cardiff, until 25th March 2018: “Bacon to Doig: Modern Masterpieces from a Private Collection” info:

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