Peter Doig is a generous interviewee. To read his published conversations is to learn of the many and interconnecting stories associated with his paintings. There is the most basic narrative of his life so far, that has taken him from Edinburgh to Trinidad to Canada to London then back to Trinidad again. There is the story of his exploration of the history of Western painting, that early on took in Jim Nutt and the Chicago Imagists as well as Jack Goldstein and Jackson Pollock, and has since enquired profoundly into European Modernism via Edward Munch, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. There are the stories relating to film. There are the stories of the music.
In this substantial exhibition of new work in the light-filled main gallery of the Vienna Secession, we are in company with an artist delving deeply into the realm of painting. Whilst he is an artist in the third decade of his career and the term ‘mastery’ would not be misplaced, the paintings here evince a persisting restlessness about the act of painting itself, as well as the legitimacy of his subject matter.
Doig is acutely conscious of himself as a white painter from the former colonial power, transplanted to a tropical island. Negotiating the sensitivities of this position, the contemporary reality of the island – while at the same time hymning the overwhelming experience of looking in this location – is the fertile, if uneasy territory of his work. “I don’t want to be just a painter of palm trees and humming birds. But I could be.”
On entering the gallery, I instinctively turned to my left so the first paintings I came across are two treatments of the same subject: a large-scale version and a smaller study. At the centre of Untitled (Wheelchair), 2019 is the gesture of a hand on the handle of a wheelchair.
The image, from a local newspaper, is of a policeman helping a one-legged man in a wheelchair to cross a road. The image is awkward and strange, and the more one interrogates it, the more extraordinary the composition becomes.
First of all, there is the vertiginous perspective of the road receding sharply into the distance. A flanking stone wall, so recognisable from other Trinidadian paintings, recedes with it. The acute angles of these geometric forms rhyme with the softer triangular shape of the bright orange lining of policeman’s coat.
As he leans forwards stiffly to push the wheelchair, the policeman’s arm creates a strong diagonal intersecting with the road. Above his head a pale yellow circular form, what may be a road sign, is the exact same size as the wheel of the wheelchair. A smaller, black circular road sign sits on the pavement narrowing in the distance, and the positioning of these three shapes in relation to each other sets up a subliminal tension across the canvas. The slender red railings atop the wall on the left provide stabilizing perpendiculars, while their colour in relation to the green of the wooded hill rising in the background and the yellow wall behind the policeman is key to the exceptionally dynamic sensation the work produces.
For all the abstraction of the scene, the painterly flatness in the treatment of the policeman’s coat, the road and wall, one feels the tilt of the policeman’s body, the weight on his right leg, the slightly nervous curl of the fingers of his left hand. From behind the railings, thinly painted trees shed pink blossoms across the road. In the distance, single storey houses look back with black window eyes, and that might just be a figure disappearing around the corner.
A larger painting, Lion (Fire Down Below), 2019, takes the abstraction of the streetscape to an even greater extreme, with broad flat areas of cobalt blue sky, black road and yellow brickwork bisected by the black perpendicular of a telegraph pole. In the darkness through the window of what is the prison building in the centre of Port of Spain, a shadowy figure looks back at us. On the pavement, inexplicably, a baleful lion passes by. Head down, one curiously blue eye turned towards the viewer.
People speak in terms of atmospheres when discussing Doig’s paintings – whether of melancholy or dream – and these riveting paintings that push their unresolved narratives to the brink of formal abstraction do so without abandoning a powerful emotional charge.
The wheelchair and policeman are new subjects – as far as I am aware – as is the black-cloaked figure in Musical Equipment Ltd and Shadow, paintings in homage to the legendary Trinidadian calypso musician Winston “Shadow” Bailey who died last October. Motifs in other works here are familiar from earlier exhibitions.
Through repetition one gets closer to understanding the artist’s process: looking at the decisions made in adapting the composition from the (presumably earlier) smaller wheelchair painting to the larger one, for example. Or the exploration of the formal possibilities of the bather figure that was first seen in 2017 at Michael Werner London. This slightly tentative figure is based on a photograph of a young Robert Mitcham in Trinidad in the 1950s.
In the two paintings here, hung side by side, the sky, sea and land are rendered in characteristically emphatic horizontals of expressive brushwork. In Bather (Night Wave) the orange of the beach is the same as the orange of the policeman’s coat lining; the bather’s face quite out of focus. Along the line of the shore the shape of the wave echoes the shape of the bather’s trunks, and the V is then inverted again in the bent knee of the recumbent female nude. In Bather (sings Calypso) the bather’s face is neatly rendered while his feet dissolve into the cobalt paint that steeps and drips down the lower section of the canvas.
Looking at these paintings is so richly rewarding an experience. Just get on a plane and go and see them.
Vienna Secession, Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna, Austria.
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 16 June 2019. www.secession.at