Sunday, 14 February 2016

Notes on the Origins of Peter Doig's Visual Language

(Note: This is research for my final critical writing for my MA and much of what is written here will be referenced to my own practice.)

In his Lecture from 2014 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Hartley talks about Doig's use of visual language, the way he works are thought processes made visual, these being deduced in a non-linguistic way. This in turn he relates to what Rudolf Arnheim called Visual Thinking. The Gestalt philosophers of the time stated that acts of visual seeing are not purely mechanical or an act of receiving data. They argued that intelligence and memory are part of perceiving the world about us. This helps use recognise the patterns and objects that constitute the appearance of reality creating an Intelligence of the eye. Visual artists have the ability to develop these skills and give enhance meaning to the realities they depict or create. Doig's visual stimuli were complex and his ability to interpret them visually advanced.

Doig was first at College in 1979 at the Wimbledon School of Art when some of the materialistic elements of Neo-Expressionist painting  were bold and questioning of the established image of painting and artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat were prominent. This rich use of colour, partly inspired by graffiti art and the loosening of the formalistic nature of histories predeceasing paintings.

He was at St Martin's School of art from 1980 to 1983. This was a continuing of the time when painting was being rediscovered. In 1981 the highly influential exhibition 'The New Spirit of Painting' (15 January 1981 – 18 March 1981) took place at the Royal Academy in London. It questioned the role of painting, it's academic necessity and The New York school of Abstract painting as the only source of direction within the painting arena. It championed the London School of Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kitaj and independent spirits such as Guston.  For any college student at the time this challenging of convention would have been highlighted. Through the works of these noted London based artists Doig would have seen more of an acceptance of the metaphorical interpretations of experience through visual dialogues, a discourse that moved away from traditional modus operandi, potentially freeing up his options.

Gerhard_richter Öl auf Photographie ; 1989 ; 10 x 15 cm
Also during this period of development Nicholas Serota, who was at White Chapel Gallery, was showing works by Gerhard Richter and David Bomberg in 1979, Max Beckmann in 1980 and Brice Martin in 1981, Anselm Kiefer and Philip Guston in 1982 and Malcolm Morley in 1983. Doig acknowledges the influence of such artists on his work but says that he tended to look towards American painters. Yet the process demonstrated by artists such as Gerhard Richter, who used photography heavily in his work, can be cited here as giving acceptance to using such devices to generate imagery for paintings.

Another exhibition that had an impact on Doig was the Who Chicago? in Camden Arts Centre in 1981 which contained paintings by Ed Paschke, Roger Brown and Jim Nutt. Malcolm Morley was also very influential especially seeing he was inspired by the New York based Graffiti artists who, as mentioned, were question the role of painting at the time.

Having spent some time in Canada Doig returned to London to do a Masters Degree at Chelsea School of Art in 1989. By this stage the debate about painting had moved on and a Neo-Conceptual environment was emerging with its visceral approach and the YBA's show Frieze in 1988 had broken new ground. Painting was far removed from the critical agenda and Doig himself has said in an interview in 2006 with Karen Wright that "the powers that be were almost embarrassed by painting in those days." But Doig was already embroiled in his own painterly journey that had its roots in his previous two periods at college in England and he would not steer from this path despite the hostile pressure at the time.

Partly because of this pressure and his rich source material of lands and processes: Canada, England and Trinidad with photo and film influences, new technologies and an interest in print, Doig justified his work and claimed it was conceptual yet rooted in a tradition of painting. His images were a formation of process, he had assimilated naturally and through practicing in the diverse source material of the time, where he created an imaginary place. Doig was expressing his thought as a complex visual language, as ideas or concepts. For example he uses notions of advertising or film as leads for elements of his framing, the language of mass media or an establishing shot from a movie, stitched into an exotic landscape, combined with the colours of the neo-expressionism and the broken surface of a blurred video still. These are the visual collections of Doig that he has gathered through his own experiences.

Peter Doig, Concrete Cabin II (1992)
One visual tool that Doig uses in his work is the foreground screen. This is a device that Film makers use to make the viewer feel present and closer to the action, as if this area is approachable and is a deliberate tool to draw the viewer in. This instinctive use of the foreground in such a way will have been a motif recognised and reinforced by Doig through mainstream cinema. In the Concrete Cabin painting series of 1989 we look through a thicket of trees to the cabin as if the tense beginning to a suspenseful film, the building a location of something unsavoury.

Gerard Richter and Edvard Polker who were widely shown in London during Doig's formative College years painted over images derived from photographs or prints. They worked up the surface of these images manipulating the paint to generate a range of effects. These use of photography became an accepted part of the artists cannon during this period.

Doig's resolution to hold his course, within a turbulent period of conceptual expression, demonstrates that his visualised internal thought processes and collection of motifs and stimuli were very much a representation of his own personal visual world.


ARNHEIM, R. Visual Thinking (1969) USA: University of California Press
HARTLEY, K. Peter Doig: Visual Intelligence Lecture January 23, 2014. America, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts [online]
Who Chicago? : an Exhibition of Contemporary Imagists : Camden Arts Centre, London, 10 Dec.-25 Jan.; Ceolfrith Gallery, Sunderland Arts Centre, 16 Feb.-14 Mar. 1981; Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 21 Mar.-30 Apr

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