Between 1998 and 2000 Doig would paint three monumental works centered on a vista of the Don Valley tunnel from the highway: a familiar landmark for Toronto residents since an anonymous artist painted a rainbow over it, at the northbound Don Valley Parkway, in 1972. One of these is presently in the collection of the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, while another was chosen as the catalogue cover illustration for the artist’s seminal retrospective at Tate Britain in 2008 and remains in a European private collection. High-Way belongs to the series of works based on this imagery that Doig created concurrently to these three larger masterpieces. Doig, from the seat of a car, discovered the scene and photographed it for future use. The car window in this case became a television screen, a channel for the kind of dream-like trance that travelling induces. Although based on a now iconic landmark in Toronto, this is not necessarily apparent to the viewer. Instead, one recognizes a bridge with a surreal rainbow painted on its surface. Doig comes across a scene or image in the real world and then dislocates it from its specific locality and meaning to create an enigma. The enigmatic quality of his imagery allows us to enter the realm of dreams and memories. His paintings tap into something broader and this explains the great appeal that Doig’s paintings have had with collectors, curators and museum going public alike. His paintings are the visual incarnations of our dreams and recollections filtered through the kaleidoscope of our history and culture. Doig explains this explicitly in the statement: “people have confused my paintings with being just about my own memories. Of course we cannot escape these. But I am more interested in the idea of memory itself.” (the artist quoted in Richard Shiff, ‘Incidents’, Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 21)
The viewer is absorbed by the sumptuous painterly surface. Doig’s paintings pull us towards the sensuous, rich and varied textures of paint while also immersing us in the illusory world that he has created on his canvas. This painting dominates the space through the vibrancy of its color, evincing inimitable wall power that belies its intimate scale. The dark hole under the bridge creates a perspectival pull and further heightens the arresting allure of High-Way. Doig’s paintings appear painted specifically so that the viewer becomes part of the scene, wholly mesmerized.
The darkness of the underpass contrasts with the rainbow and impossibly effervescent green and yellow of the landscape. The deep blackness of the tunnel’s center is enigmatic, at once suggestive of an entrance to another world whilst also depicting an anonymous marginal urban space. As the artist has explained: “A lot of the works deal with peripheral or marginal sites, places where the urban world meets the natural world. Where the urban elements almost become, literally, abstract devices. There are a lot of ‘voids’ in the paintings. A lot of the paintings portray a sense of optimism that can often be read as being a little desperate, like the image of a rainbow painted around the entrance to an underpass.” (the artist in conversation with Matthew Higgs in Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott and Catherine Grenier, Peter Doig, London, 2007, p. 139) Doig is one of the great colorists of our time. The liberties Doig takes in his choice of color and innovative paint application are evidence of a supremely confident and creative mind. The result is a corpus that pushes against representation and reality but never leaves it behind.
The theme of dislocation is central to Doig's work and is fed by his incessant traveling and relocation throughout his life. The artist repeatedly mentions in interviews the excitement he feels discovering and becoming lost in new places. Such sensation was exactly how he felt upon his return to Canada after several formative years studying art in London at the Chelsea College of Arts and the Wimbledon College of Art. His distance from Canada originally inspired the Canadian pictures he became famous for in London. The time spent away from his childhood home allowed him to become an alien again upon his return as he rediscovered the landscape with fresh eyes. He knew these places and recognized them but, at the same time, they seemed different and foreign. Doig looks to have his paintings evoke a similar visceral response in the viewer and High-Way achieves this magnificently. This theme is indicative of a larger preoccupation for the artist with transience, journeying and drifting, notions that recur time and again in his oeuvre. As such, High-Way is emblematic of the core of Doig’s artistic interests both conceptually and visually.
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