Catherine Lampert and Richard Shiff, Peter Doig, New York 2011, p. 307, illustrated in colour
The title of Doig’s first major museum show, Peter Doig Blizzard seventy-seven, places the present works at the forefront of Doig’s oeuvre and brilliantly captures the overarching conceptual theme of Doig’s practice up to 1998: snow. In late January and early February of 1977, one of the biggest snowstorms ever to hit America cemented the city of Buffalo’s infamous reputation as the country’s blizzard capital. On the border between Western New York and Southern Ontario, Buffalo was hit particularly badly by the blizzard’s sub-zero temperatures in which zero-visibility, caused by impenetrable drifts of snow, stranded many people in their homes, at work, and even in their cars for days on end. Scottish by birth, Peter Doig nonetheless grew up in Canada; he had moved with his family to the suburbs of Montreal in 1966, after which they relocated to Foster, Quebec and later to rural Ontario. Snow, therefore, was a constant backdrop to Doig’s youth, and, aged seventeen and living in Ontario during the winter of 1977, this particular snowstorm would undoubtedly have been one to remember. By 1989, after having lived in London for nearly ten years – in 1979 he had taken up his studies at Wimbledon School or Art and then at St Martins School of Art the following year, while in 1989 he returned to London to begin his MA at Chelsea – physical and temporal distance from Canada compounded an already existing tendency to look back at people and places left behind. This psychological remnant, which, contends Catherine Lampert, was a symptom of “having been moved around a great deal as a child and student”, began to fuel the subjects of his painting for the next decade (Catherine Lampert, ‘Peter Doig: Dreams and the Light Imaginings of Men’, in: Richard Shiff and Catherine Lampert, Eds., Peter Doig, New York 2011, p. 360). “I’d been painting landscape – or an idea of landscape – in London,” Doig explained to Chris Ofili in 2007, “via my experience in Canada, but that didn’t come for a long, long time… And it was never really that kind of real experience; it was like filtering through things… [it] was always a kind of escape to make these paintings in the studio, because what was outside the door was so different really. The work had become a different world… That was the excitement in a way; trying to find this other place in my studio, in my urban studio, in my head” (Peter Doig in conversation with Chris Ofili, 2007, quoted in: Judith Nesbit, ‘A Suitable Distance’, Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 18).
Across the universe of Doig’s memory-fuelled 1990s landscapes, snow is the thread that links these works together: from the snow-covered woodland scenes of Rosedale (1991), the reflected frozen pond in Blotter (1993) and Pond Life (1994); the mountain and ski-themed paintings Ski Jacket (1994), Figure in a Mountain Landscape (1997-98) and Pink Mountain (1996); through to the curtain of snowy effects that envelop the picture plane in Night Fishing (1993), Jetty (1994) and the present works. While Doig’s use of snow is undoubtedly literal and autobiographical, it also operates on a metaphorical and formalistic level; uses that are undoubtedly at stake for a reading of the present works. In Buffalo Station I and II the memory of the 1977 blizzard is brought to bear upon another event in the history of Buffalo: a Rolling Stones concert held at the city’s Rich Stadium one year later in the summer of 1978. Part of the ‘Some Girls Tour’, the concert is an oblique allusion in Doig’s paintings. There is no clue as to the nature of the event held at the stadium; no stage, no audience, no posters or insignia, the viewer is instead presented with a double image of the stadium’s exterior and the dispersing crowd from what appears to either presage the event or depict its aftermath. Executed in soft shades of pink and yellow, and punctuated with delicate speckles and daubs of white paint – an effect that echoes the glow of sunshine after snow – we view the scene as though looking through a frosted window. Both summer and winter, night and day, these paintings are hard to place. They are dream-like and wistful; seen through screens of paint, events and images become compressed and conflated. Considering his own immense interest in music – as Matthew Higgs' project, ‘Peter Doig’s Record Collection’, for the catalogue of Blizzard seventy-seven clearly establishes – it is unsurprising to learn that Doig, aged nineteen, was at this concert himself (Matthew Higgs, ‘Peter Doig’s Record Collection’, in: Exh. Cat., Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, (and travelling), Peter Doig Blizzard seventy seven, 1998, pp. 139-48). The cuttings and images in Doig’s archive reveal several photographs in which crowds of people dressed in summer clothes are scattered about Rich Stadium’s surrounding space, while other photographs of the stadium’s interior reveals a densely populated sea of bodies. The direct source images for the present works depict the scattered fallout after the concert as people make their way home; two photographs taken by one of Doig's friends make up a complete panorama of the stadium, which appears shell-like and bereft after the concert’s climax. One of these images was used as the private view invitation for Doig’s Buffalo Station show at Victoria Miro in 1998; an exhibition held one month prior to the Blizzard seventy seven survey. Indeed, as with all of Doig’s work, experience and memorial allusion is mediated through secondary photographic source material. Whether from newspaper clippings, record sleeve artwork, film stills or his own archive of photographs and video-footage, Doig’s personal narrative is processed by the way of signifiers of universal cultural experiences. The autobiographical specificity of Doig’s Canadian referents – whether the frozen pond on the outskirts of Doig’s parental farm, the Toronto suburb of Rosedale, the lodgings for transient workers, his experience of the blizzard of 1977 or even his memories of a Rolling Stones concert in 1978 – is disrupted by a visual eclecticism in which art historical allusion, Pop culture and technological contemporaneity are melded together.
Within the ethereal and fluid strata of sprayed and scumbled paint, the present works evoke a host of art historical archetypes that stretches back centuries. Tracing a lineage through the Abstract Expressionist mark-making of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko’s sublime treatment of colour, Gustave Klimt’s jewel-like treatment of paint, and Edvard Munch’s haunting psychological landscapes, Buffalo Station I and II are visually replete with an artistically heterogeneous post-modernism. Most of all perhaps, the present works stand out for their evocation of the painterly variegation and impressionistic light effects of Claude Monet. Akin to Monet’s serial treatment of subjects – from the architectural translation of Rouen Cathedral or the Houses of Parliament through to his depiction of the Seine and finally his waterlily garden at Giverny – Doig’s chromatically divergent double portrait of Buffalo Station convey different atmospheres. The predominantly pink composition of Buffalo Station I exudes a sense of summer heat shrouded in condensation or mist; jewel-like bursts of colour articulate miniature wandering figures, while bursts of green and blue create a sense of depth across the central band of the composition. In Buffalo Station II, the effect is altogether cooler; white spots and daubs of impasto in the top half of the composition convey blizzard-like effects, while across the central band a white-out drift of diaphanous paint enshrouds the stadium’s structure in an atmospheric haze.
Doig himself has located Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s innovative treatment of snow in the paradigmatic 1563 painting, Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, as a formative influence: “When you look at [Breughel’s painting] the snow is almost all the same size, it’s not perspectival, it’s the notion of the ‘idea’ of snow, which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it” (Peter Doig cited in: Richard Shiff, ‘Drift’ in: Richard Shiff and Catherine Lampert, Eds., op. cit., p. 329). Doig thus looks to Bruegel from a perspective symptomatic of the way in which photographic images and film were consumed during the 1990s, an age on the cusp of the digital revolution. For instance, by adopting a Breugelian non-perspectival treatment of snow or snowy-effects as a screen you have to look through, Doig imbues his landscapes with a cool detachment redolent of video and photo based media. As outlined by Johanne Sloan: “Doig joins the company of others in the contemporary art world who manage to bring the practice of painting up against cinema, video, photography, computer screens, and other kinds of visual technologies. Gerhard Richter is one of the foremost figures in this respect, in that he has investigated this threshold with great intensity over the course of his career” (Johanne Sloan, ‘Hallucinating Landscape’ in: Exh. Cat., Vancouver, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Peter Doig, 2001, p. 12). Aligned to Gerhard Richter’s post-modern re-validation of painting as an art form within an age of mechanical-reproduction, Doig’s thematisation of the virtual screen recapitulates the landscape tradition of the Twenty-First century. Akin to Richter, Doig’s practice utilises a vast visual archive of images, yet, by the way of autobiography and memory, Doig taps into a collective virtual-memory by sampling paradigms from art history and the ready-made images that infiltrate contemporary visual experience. His paintings are therefore characterised by an innate familiarity. Richard Shiff explains: “Doig’s paintings create memories from mazes of disorienting detail. They show something familiar that nevertheless looks unsettlingly weird, or something weird that looks familiar” (Richard Shiff, ‘Drift’, op. cit., p. 323).
Herein lies the very crux of Doig’s art – candy coloured nostalgia is cut through by an unsettling atmosphere of familiar-unfamiliarity while the danger of mawkish saccharine anachronism is averted owing to the pervading presence of an unhomely-homliness. Doig’s images tap into an experience that is in many ways universal; they evince a sense of déjà-vu, of having been somewhere before, an experience repeated and re-presented. This goes a long way to explain the doubling of images across Doig’s practice. Doig often painted the same composition twice; sometimes by means of a reflection in a single work and other times through a repetitive return to specific subject matter and compositions. In Doig’s oeuvre, the effect is disconcerting and bewildering, akin to a recurring dream. Across the expanse of Buffalo Station I and II, a double image unfolds. Read from left to right we are presented with a panoramic vista of Rich stadium in Buffalo; however on closer inspection, the measured duplication of the slender vertical flood lights, the curving angle of the stadium’s rafters, and distance of the foliage and stadium windows in each composition, suggests a mirror image. Doig has commented on this effect of doubling or ‘mirroring’ present in many major works of the mid-late 1990s: “… the mirroring opened up another world, it went from being something like a recognisable reality to something more magical” (Peter Doig cited in: Judith Nesbit, ‘A Suitable Distance’, op. cit., p. 14). Tate curator Judith Nesbit has argued that in mirroring a composition, Doig is creating its opposite – in Ski Jacket for instance, the painting is comprised of two panels which together create a Rorschach-like composition, a doubling in which the original is replicated but not identical (Ibid., pp. 14-17). In Buffalo Station I and II, this effect of same-yet-different underlies an impression of mystery and otherworldliness.
The triumphant conceit of Doig’s method, deployed to majestic and emotively powerful effect in Buffalo Station I and II, calls forth a dreamscape synthesis of atmospheric reflection, collective-memory and nostalgia that photography alone could never capture. There is a visual suspension between the imaginary and the documentary, the autobiographically specific and culturally multifarious, that fixes the viewer’s attention. Buried under snowy veils of television interference white-noise, these paintings confer a fascinating and ethereal symposium of the homely and peculiar. In-tune with the very best of the artist’s oeuvre, Doig’s whimsical manipulation of paint and ingenious invention transports us into daydream, “until”, to quote Eva Meyer-Hermann, “the picture is swept away and dissolved into static” (Eva Meyer-Hermann, ‘Eva Meyer-Hermann on Daytime Astronomy’ in: Exh. Cat., Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Peter Doig: Blizzard seventy-seven, 1998, p. 131).
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