Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Day Auction


Peter Doig
signed twice, titled and dated 93 on the reverse
oil on canvas
63.6 by 50.7cm.; 25 by 20in.
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Private Collection, London
Sale: Sotheby's London, Contemporary Art, 22 June 2007, Lot 304
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Catalogue Note

"I had intended these paintings to be about the act of looking through... to find focus. I purposely painted the manmade buildings through the trees rather than paint them first, then paint a screen of trees or nature on top. I had seen Cezanne do this a lot – the light of architecture glimpsed [to capture an] idea of memory." The artist quoted in Exhibition Catalogue: London, Tate Britain; ARC/Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris ; Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 38.

Boiler House is a stunning example of the artist's early practice, which earned him the John Moores exhibition prize the same year it was executed and the Turner Prize the next. Before the laureate of the 1994 Turner Prize was revealed, Adrian Searle wrote that Doig was probably "the people's choice" candidate for that year, adding that "there is something peculiarly hallucinatory about Doig's work. His paintings are like old memories with the colour and contrast turned up too high: things are too intense, and the world is beginning to dissolve." (Adrian Searle, "The Twilight Zone: Adrian Searle finds Peter Doig, youngest of the artists on the Turner Prize Shortlist, 'doing Friedrich after Xerox" in The Independant, 21 October 1994)
If Doig would have been 'the people's choice' for the Turner Prize, if such an award existed, it is because his landscapes depict an atmosphere that is, in the collective memory, somehow familiar. But yet, his pictures are also strangely surreal, and provoke a feeling of unease within the beholder. As Judith Nesbitt rightly points out, the notion of the uncanny parallels the Freudian concept of the unheimlich. (Judith Nesbitt in Exhibition Catalogue: London, Tate Britain; ARC/Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris ; Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 12)

This ambiguity is powerfully mirrored in Boiler House, in which resonates Doig's deep and complex emotional relationship with the Unité d'Habitation of Briey, in Northern France, one of Le Corbusier's last Modernist Projects of social housing. Nestled in the middle of the woods, Briey's apartment blocks were inaugurated in 1961, but quickly unravelled and were abandoned by 1973. In the early 1990s, the first floor of the Unité d'Habitation was occupied by artists, designers and architects attempting to restore and breathe new life into what was once the recipient of great post-war utopian hope; and Doig himself was involved with the project.

Doig is an avid 'image collector', and always paints from photographic documentation. In the case of Boiler House, he worked from stills from his own video recordings as he progressed through the dark, threatening woods towards the light, cream coloured building. The blurred, technically bad images he got of his discovery of the building, obtained with a handheld camera as he walked through the screen of trees and thick, tangled foliage, is exactly what he was trying to capture: "a suggestion of the eye moving ... handmade and homely looking ... beautiful but slightly repellent." "With the Corcbusier/Briey paintings, I was trying to depict the movement of an eye, not to paint a still. The eye never sees a 'still'" (the artist quoted in Ibid, p. 41 and 39).
With its intrinsic ambiguity of dark/light, inviting/frightening, Doig's experience captured on the stills perfectly projected his ambiguous mood as he progressed, and therefore Briey became the fruitful terrain for his study of perception and feeling. Part of a wonderful series executed between 1991 and 1999, Boiler House epitomises the artist's feat of representing perception itself. The uncanny sensation contained in the current lot was achieved by the artist's decision to create a spatially ambiguous composition, as he painted the patches of trees and foliage with no specific order with the architecture – instead of the traditional background then foreground mode of pictorial execution. The result is, paradoxically, both highly surrealistic and much more real to the eye and actual perception.
The physical blur of the film stills forever embodied in the current lot as a conceptual blur, Boiler House sits right on the cusp between very different – but not necessarily opposite – sets of feelings, as a highly mystifying and atmospheric masterpiece.

Contemporary Art Day Auction