Country-rock (wing-mirror) is distinctly Doig: nostalgic without being specifically reminiscent, entrenched in fabled Canadian roots, and characterised by his trademark otherworldliness. The rainbow tunnel off the Don Valley Parkway, or DVP, is a view immediately familiar to any Toronto resident. Situated within a small valley in the parklands that surround the Don River, the tunnel was built in 1961 at the same time as the mammoth six-lane highway that today forms a major artery in and out of the city. A view from the passenger seat of a car, Peter Doig’s mysterious landscape utterly encapsulates the familiar ennui of such peripheral spaces. In concert with the ever-expanding urban sprawl, these places represent a terra incognita of concrete and shrubland. The rainbow underpass however is a jarring interruption of the cultural no-man’s land that borders the flow of speeding or gridlocked cars. It is a peculiar and mysterious entity: seen by everyone yet uninhabited, it is a decoration that could have been completed by anyone, on an underpass belonging to no one. This is what Doig looks for in his source material: his subject is not personal nostalgia, but the abstract phenomenon of dreams and the concept of nostalgia itself.
Painted in 1999, Country-rock (wing-mirror) is one of Peter Doig’s most recognisable works. Replete with mystery and intrigue, this painting is definitive of the artist’s cinematic visual code; a melding of memory with imagination, landscape with dreamscape, timelessness with the inescapably present. Between 1998 and 2000 Doig would paint three monumental works centred on a vista of the Don Valley rainbow from the highway: one of these is presently in the collection of the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev while the other 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. The present work is distinguished from the other two, however, as the only version to feature a glimpse of the car – via the intrusion of a wing-mirror in the lower left quadrant – from which our viewpoint originates. The spectator is thus a passenger on their way out of the sprawl and into the wild. Doig’s rainbow is a marker, a reminiscent signpost of the wistful space of summertime car journeys, and its title is the soundtrack, the background radio intermingled with the car engine’s drone. Seated next to the driver, the passenger is free to daydream and let thoughts runaway with the speeding traffic; watching a blur of cars and shifting landscape, the window becomes a television screen, a channel for the kind of dream-like trance that travelling induces. In Country-rock (wing-mirror) we are transported into that fantastical realm of reverie, a meditative in-between pregnant with suspense and anticipation, and resigned to the province of memory. Though only featured in three major works, there are countless drawings, watercolours and aquatints that replay, relive and revise this view from the DVP. Affined with the déjà vu-like status of the canoe for its countless reprisals – an engagement famously beginning with White Canoe(1990-91) and continuing through to 100 Years Ago (2001) – the rainbow tunnel is among the most powerfully evocative and universal signifiers of Doig’s practice.
In 1972, just over ten years following its construction, the originally grey façade of this roadside underpass was over-painted with a rainbow. Boldly self-anointed the ‘Caretaker of Dreams’, Berg Johnson was 16 when he first decided to decorate the concrete tunnel that passes underneath a railway line next to the highway. Originally from Norway, Johnson was inspired by the memory of a friend named Sigrid, who died in a tragic car accident nearby. He often would complain to her that people in Toronto “never looked up”, and following her death, endeavoured to do something to “make people smile” (Berg Johnson quoted in: The Toronto Star, 3 November 2012, online resource). His first attempt to paint the tunnel was beset by drama. Having fashioned a support out of rope and lowered himself into position by the tunnel's entrance, he was caught unawares by an approaching train: the fast-moving vehicle cut through the rope and Johnson tumbled down the embankment, breaking his leg in the fall. A class from the nearby Don Mills Middle School helped Johnson to complete the mural shortly afterwards and ever since the DVP rainbow has remained a beloved and unofficial public monument. Following the first incarnation in North York, further rainbow arches began to appear on culverts and tunnels around the Greater Toronto Area. However the original, and the one depicted in Doig’s paintings, is the only one left remaining today. Though park authorities deemed the mural as vandalism and overpainted it in layers of grey, Johnson would determinedly return over 40 times within the space of 30 years to remove graffiti and restore his mural; a recurrence that would only end when he was issued a no trespassing order in 1994. Now officially sanctioned as public art, local groups have taken up maintenance of the site, covering up the graffiti which has appeared over time with fresh layers of brightly coloured paint. The most recent renovation was undertaken in 2012 with the help of a grant from the City of Toronto and the efforts of Mural Routes, a non-profit organisation that restores public art projects in urban environments. The freshly painted rainbow tunnel was officially ‘re-launched’ at the completion of the project in the presence of local dignitaries and in front of a crowd for whom the mural had come to represent a crucial moment of brightness on a weary commute: a celebrated local monument and repository for over forty years’ worth of memories.
There is a pronounced folkloric dimension to this story that undoubtedly would have captured Doig’s imagination. The tale behind the origin of the rainbow – a story of transformation from concrete carbuncle to roadside symbol of hope – through Johnson’s 30-year maintenance of the site and his battle against park authorities, to the tunnel’s now official integration into the cultural landscape of Toronto, these details collectively spin a folksy yarn of legendary proportion. Indeed, Johnson’s whimsical tale truly of belongs to the realm of Canadian mythology. Undeniably redolent with nostalgia and hippy romanticism, this story is the perfect vehicle for Doig’s portrayal of Canada as a creative realm of free imagination. Intriguingly, Doig only began painting these geographically specific Canadian locations in earnest once he had settled in London in 1989. A heightened almost melancholic sense of dislocation from the Canadian landscape of his youth is thus tenable in his work from the 1990s and early 2000s. As though heralding a return of the repressed, cultural displacement emerges in these works as evocative nostalgia suffused with fantasy.
It has been suggested that Doig’s pronounced fascination with nostalgia is a product of a nomadic life; a product of being born in Scotland, growing up in Canada and settling in London and Trinidad; a product of not really being ‘from’ anywhere. To this end, it is interesting to note the way he has painted Canadian images while living in London and Trinidad – as much attempts to form an identity in a new home, as to commemorate an old one. However, to make this assumption perhaps overly sentimentalises the work and suggests a personal link and a sense of specificity to the artist that is notably absent. Doig has registered his grievance at this narrow interpretation: “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” (Peter Doig quoted in: Richard Shiff, ‘Incidents’, Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Britain, Peter Doig, 2008, p. 21). The rainbow tunnel is a significant subject that would be charged with nostalgia for any resident of Toronto. Doig uses it however to conjure up a sense of general memory – of a fleeting snapshot filled with implication, but devoid of direct connotation. Indeed, this work focuses as much on memory and nostalgia itself, as on the reminiscences of a Canadian artist living in London. It is then through the transient highway setting that Doig is able to hone in on the act of dreamlike recollection.
Country-rock (wing-mirror) is a prime example of the mood which Doig has forged in his painting: an ethereal but tense otherworldliness that suffuses his subjects with a muted numbness. In the planar composition, in the thin texture of the paintwork, and in the suggestion that their scenes may continue beyond the limitations of the canvas, Doig’s works are overtly dreamlike. They are surreal, if not in the semiotic psychoanalytical sense, then in that sense of a blanketed half-remembered detail. So often, when we experience a sense of misplaced familiarity, we attribute it to a dream. With this mundane and universally recognised highway setting, Doig imparts that same sense of familiarity into his work, and from it we make the same attribution: that this is not a work of memory, but rather a dream transposed.
At once universally familiar and discordant, Doig’s picture bestows a strangely recognisable yet irretrievable past that compounds a reading of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny. Congruent to this psychological state, there is an atmospheric disturbance present within the most powerful of Doig’s painted landscapes: fragments of recollected autobiography combined with hallucinatory fiction and the isolating feeling of suspended time confer an underlying threat, a case of jarring homeliness. In Country-rock (wing-mirror) a hint of trepidation is cloaked in jovial rainbow colours.
The vibrant colours of the rainbow arch in Doig's painting appear superimposed against the green expanse of the verge; this culvert seems to weightlessly balance upon the white barrier that divides the tunnel from the road. Overhead telegraph wires pass through the tops of trees through which medium-rise buildings are just visible above the foliage. The deep blackness of the tunnel’s centre is enigmatic, at once suggestive of an entrance to another world whilst simultaneously evoking the threatening portent of an isolated and unlit tunnel in the midst of the urban sprawl. 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 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” (Peter Doig in conversation with Matthew Higgs in: Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott, Catherine Grenier, Peter Doig London 2007, p. 139).
In Doig's juxtaposition of the man-made and the natural, perhaps a comparison with J.M.W. Turner is apt. Where Turner painted hints of steam engines and railways within a sublime landscape setting, he highlighted the encroachment of the industrial age upon an Arcadian ideal. Analogously in Doig’s work, landscape becomes a reflective symbiosis of mythology and urban reality: screens of static distort our view, telegraph poles cut through foliage and, as in the present work, a concrete motorway courses through the constituent elements of a Romantic landscape. The rainbow in particular is a historical feature of traditional paintings of sublime nature. As prominent in works by Turner, John Constable and Caspar David Friedrich, the rainbow is an articulation of divine glory. Doig’s use of the trope however, in line with Gerhard Richter’s parodic photo-mediated treatment, evinces the marked post-modernism of his painterly enterprise.
Utterly eclectic, Doig’s practice is thoroughly entrenched within our contemporary image and media-saturated moment. Akin to Richter’s aforementioned corpus of Photo Paintings, and bearing a strong affinity with the archival methodology of Francis Bacon, Doig’s studio based practice utilises a vast archive of images collated from newspapers, postcards, film and album covers, as well as a stock of his own video footage and photography. The composition forCountry-rock (wing-mirror) is structurally anchored to the artist’s own photographs of the rainbow tunnel and is accordingly imbued with the kind of atmospheric glow that old photographs possess. Nonetheless, Doig was also thinking specifically about a particular Edward Hopper painting, Approaching a City (1946) in which a railway moves inexorably towards the depths of a curved tunnel. The converging perspective and slight arch of the railway tunnel set against a row of apartment buildings are all elements that find their parity in the present work, however it is the stark inference of isolation and bareness that chimes most resonantly. In this sense Doig was also greatly influenced by the work of Edvard Munch: the melancholic and tense atmosphere and dreamlike treatment of line and colour present within works such as Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900) reveal parallels with the psychological stimulus for Doig’s own work. At once enmeshing elements derived from art history, autobiography and a contemporary experience of non-stop visual saturation, Doig taps into a collective virtual-memory.
Significantly, this picture narrates a crucial turning point in Doig’s oeuvre. Moving away from the matrix of dense painterly layers that provide a videotic static to the earlier Canadian winter-landscapes, towards the end of the 1990s the works begin to possess an aqueous clarity and delicately diffusive quality. A catalytic masterpiece that illustrates this crucial transformation, this painting precedes comparable examples in major public institutions: Gastof zur Muldentalsperre(2000-02) on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Music of the Future (2002-07) housed in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, and 100 Years Ago (2001) in the collection of the Pomipdou Centre, Paris. Rather than looking through screens of interlocking patterns and painterly veils, Country-rock (wing-mirror) and its counterparts exude a translucency and openness that in turn reinforces the hazy atmosphere of sepia-toned nostalgia and bleary-eyed remembrance of a dream.
The triumph of Country-rock (wing-mirror) emphatically resides in its dreamscape synthesis of heady atmosphere, collective-memory and emotive nostalgia tinged and countered by minor discord. There is a visual suspension between the imaginary and the documentary, the autobiographically specific and culturally multifarious all of which flow within the ethereal reverie of this painting’s exquisite facture. In Country-rock (wing-mirror) Doig confers a fascinating and otherworldly symposium of the homely and peculiar.
Images drift up from where they have been hiding. Think of dark water, in a lagoon, at dusk; think of reflections on the surface, broken, reforming - reflections of the trees, reflections of houses, reflections of people by the shore, reflections of you, looking at and into the water and thinking of reflections; think of large unknown fish; think of a drowned thing, rising. This is the way they drift up.
They arrive without being summoned. If you look at the dark long enough you might see such images. If you close your eyes you will see them anyway, possibly in reversed colours, black for white, green for red. As you pause between sleep and waking, you may see them. They're at your shoulder, they're in the corner of your eye, they're in the corner.
Where do they come from? They come from the land of images, which is in this world and not in this world, which is in your mind and not in your mind. These images are obviously messengers - they come back again and again, as if you didn't read their message the first time, as if they have to return over and over, scratching not at your door but at your eyes. Listen to me, hear me, see me! Pay attention!
But it's as if they speak in a foreign language. You need to translate them, but that doesn't seem possible: their language is not known. There must be a grammar, there must be a vocabulary, but neither of these can be discovered: there's no dictionary.
Do they have your best interests at heart, these images? You aren't sure about that. What are your best interests? What is a heart? In this twilit, shifting landscape, such concepts escape you.
What can you do but set the images down? Draw them, paint them, work them up, work them over, work them out. Work them out of your system. Make something of them. Hope that you can read them that way.
But read what? If the images are messengers, what is the message they carry? We are what has been inscribed, they say. Inscribed on you. We are where you have been. We are where you are.
Look at us. Look into us. Make of us what you can.
Here you are.
First printed in: Exhibition Catalogue, Vero Beach, The Gallery at Windsor (and travelling), Peter Doig Works on Paper, 2005-06, pp. 7-8. Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of O.W. Toad Ltd., Copyright © O.W. Toad Ltd 2005
Winner of the Booker Prize in 2000,Canadian-born Margaret Atwood is the internationally renowned author of fifteen books of poetry as well as novels, short stories and children’s books. Her widely celebrated works of fiction include The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1993), The Blind Assassin (2000) and, most recently, MaddAddam (2013) amongst many others.
Peter Doig moves forward, making positive art. He follows the restless, haphazard lead of his curiosity, nourished by observation and how the brilliant colors and remarkable textures of paint extend his visual experience. To live a contemporary life is sufficient as his motivation. He discovers aesthetic richness in odd places, like a guerrilla-decorated pedestrian tunnel in Toronto, glimpsed from a passing automobile. Doig’s sense of contemporary culture, high or low, offers one sensory surprise following another.
We need more artists like Peter Doig, despite his uniqueness. His practice amounts to independent inventiveness - a probing application of visual and conceptual wit that registers no complaints. Country-rock (wing-mirror) is characteristic Doig: it combines tangible allusions to multiple aspects of ordinary experience that might otherwise pass unremarked. Its attraction extends beyond the striking presence of a painted rainbow to the movement conveyed by the angle of vision, the skewed traffic striping, and the fragment of rear-view side-mirror. Doig’s effects originate as photographic but re-emerge as exceedingly painterly. Here, a palette of secondaries - orange, green, violet - creates a color fantasia, perhaps inspired by imagining the rainbow spectrum spreading out into its surroundings. One element builds on another. I think I hear Country Rock on the car radio - Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Gregg Allman - appropriate to the folksiness of the rainbow. What I see is quintessential Peter Doig.
Dr Richard Shiff holds the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at The University of Texas in Austin as well as being Director of The Centre for the Study of Modernism. He has written extensively on Modern and Contemporary art, and contributed to the 2008 Peter Doig Tate Exhibition Catalogue and the recent Rizzoli monograph (2012). His many publications include, amongst others, Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (1984), Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné (Co-authored 2004) and Ellsworth Kelly: New York Drawings 1954-1962 (2014).
Peter Doig’s now-familiar winter landscapes, not to mention the celebrated White Canoe (1990-91), meet standard expectations of what it is to grow up in Canada, but Country-rock (wing-mirror) is the necessary companion. Most of our nation’s 35 million people live in cities, and getting to the mythic, overdetermined countryside is a matter of trial by car. This scene, from the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, is all too familiar with commuters and weekenders stuck in traffic on the way to Kawartha Lakes or tiny lakeside cottages of Prince Edward Country. You are still in the city here, suspended between the dense urban concentration you are attempting to flee and the vast highway system, draped around the city like asphalt tentacles, which is your only means of doing so. The first time this rainbow pattern appeared on the sewer-like underpass, in 1972, the municipal parks department painted it over; for years after, Berg Johnson, the original artist, inscribed it again. Now it is a cherished fixture of the Parkway’s riverside landscape, that valley of flowing cars. As a child of the air force, forced to relocate across the country every two or three years, as well as a conscript in summer camping culture, I spent countless hours with pretty much this scene as my view on the world, the open-window air hot on my face. But dreamscapes are where you find them: how many grand fantasies, of love and triumph, did I entertain while soaring my flattened hand through that car-made wind?
Mark Kingwell, Professor of Philosophy at Toronto University, is a well-known academic, cultural figure, and critic. Alongside making frequent appearances in the media, Kingwell writes extensively and widely for academic journals and newspapers, and is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of more than fifteen books on cultural and political theory, including the national bestseller Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac (1998), and The World We Want (2000), Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams (2006), Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (2008) and most recently Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility and the Human Imagination (2012).