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Contemporary Art

Peter Doig's Photographic Memory

It's the summer of 1978, and the Rolling Stones are in town, as part of the US tour promoting their new album, Some Girls. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the band have just finished a 90-minute gig at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, rounding the set off with their classic hit, Jumping' Jack Flash. Some 72,000 fans are filing out – and it’s their exit that is captured in Peter Doig's twin canvases, Buffalo Station I and Buffalo Station II, the British painter choosing to ignore the concert itself. There’s no band nor stage, no speakers nor insignia, just a view of the stadium exterior and the dispersing crowd.

Completed in 1998 – 20 years after the gig – the paintings are based on photographic source material, as Doig's works often are. The artist, a keen music fan, was at the concert in Buffalo and the photos were taken by his friend. Doig was 18 at the time and his then home, in Toronto, was just a couple of hours' drive away. But that isn't, in fact, of the greatest significance.

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Peter Doig, BUFFALO STATION I, 1998.

Photographs are only ever a jumping-off point for Doig. Original scenes undergo a radical transformation, the artist taking us on a journey away from recognisable reality. "By making or looking at a painting," says the artist, "we try to get away from the ordinary". His works are characterised by an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere – or, as Judith Nesbitt, the curator of his 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain puts it, by "a quiescence... with an undertow of disturbance".

As for Buffalo Station I and Buffalo Station II, they are executed in soft, fluid shades of pink and yellow respectively – complete with the occasional speckle of white snow. The effect is ethereal: to the extent that we can't really tell whether it's night or day, summer or winter. There's a haze in both works that recalls the light effects of the Impressionist master, Claude Monet (though the works also call to mind the age discolouration in old photographs). Abstract passages intermingle with figurative. Nothing is obvious, nothing straightforward.

They also mark an important shift that happened in Doig’s art in the mid-Nineties: as he moved away from the thick impasto, with which he’d made his name, towards a lighter, thinner application of paint. (Critics and scholars tend to divide his career into two halves broadly along those lines.)

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Peter Doig, BUFFALO STATION II, 1998.

The Buffalo works were made just in time to feature in Doig's first big, institutional exhibition, Peter Doig: Blizzard seventy-seven, which travelled from the German venues of Kunsthalle zu Kiel and Kunsthalle Nürnberg to London's Whitechapel Gallery in 1998. At first glance, they may not look like typical Doigs. As Hans-Werner Scmidt, erstwhile director of Kunsthalle zu Kiel, put it in the exhibition catalogue: "in most of Doig's work, a zone [exists] between us and the motif... We are close to the central focus of the image but distanced from it. Doig's stratagem... relies on a variety of structural devices for blocking and blurring".

These devices might be a brick wall, a fence, or perhaps inclement weather; or, as in one well-known example, 1991's The Architects Home in the Ravine (sold by Sotheby's for £14,376,400 in March 2018), thickets of forest. In such a way Doig keeps the viewer at a certain remove from the action, duly adding to the sense of disquiet.

The artist doesn’t appear to adopt such a stratagem in the Buffalo paintings. Not an obvious one anyway. We encounter the scene head-on – viewed together, from left to right, the images offer what amounts to a panorama of Rich Stadium.

It’s here, though, that the aforementioned shift in Doig’s painting style becomes important. Surely it’s possible to think of the diaphanous films of pink and yellow paint as a distancing device. We view events outside Rich Stadium as though through a pair of frosted windows.

All of which is to say, there are countless tensions in these works: between the documentary and the imaginary; the autobiographical and the public; the painterly and photographic; the abstract and figurative; between old Doig and new Doig… It’s hard to keep up with everything that’s going on – and all without a single Rolling Stone in sight.

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