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Like all the greatest paintings by Doig, Daytime Astronomy (Grasshopper) is inspired by a wide array of sources, drawn from both the artist’s memory and from photographs and film-stills. Compositionally unframed, the painting offers a landscape redolent of a vista glimpsed from the window of a car, of the unspecified edifices and landscapes that whip by unexamined; but this is not an anonymous building, and the figure in the foreground is not an anonymous man. Indeed, for an artist such as Doig, who is keenly aware of the artists who preceded him, Hans Namuth’s photograph of Jackson Pollock sitting in the grass outside his East Hampton studio, a primary source for the present work, is of immense importance. The singular impact of Pollock on the trajectory of twentieth-century art is not lost on Doig, but even this titan is only subtly included, his raised knees providing a slight undulation to the landscape. This apparent slight is due to the immense intricacy of Doig’s composition, which does not permit a focal point to emerge. Broadly, the painting is split into three defined sections: a dark foreground that takes up nearly half of the painting, which is itself subdivided into four sections by slender black lines; a central section which begins in line with Pollock’s reclining figure and ends with the band of white paint towards the top of the composition; and a smaller hallucinatory skyscape that crowns the picture plane. This subdivision of the canvas enables Doig to walk a tightrope of figuration and abstraction, referencing both his American predecessors and European contemporaries, while simultaneously allowing his specific genius to shine through.
The various art-historical influences evident in this work should not be overlooked. There are undeniable echoes of Mark Rothko in the segmented layering of the composition, as well as in the immense power afforded to the colours Doig uses, with the opaque greens and browns of the bottom register segueing to delicate coloured washes in the upper layers. More generally, the intertwining of foreground and background and the immense deliberation of every visual mark owes a great deal to the Abstract Expressionist movement as a whole. However, it should not be assumed that all of these references are simply an homage to those who came before; at times they are an inversion. Torqueing the vertical shafts of Barnett Newman’s Zip paintings by flipping them horizontally, Doig enables entire worlds to be built within the confines of a horizontal band that Newman saw as a substantive streak of light. Speaking about the American master’s work, Doig observed: “I did like the idea that maybe these sections which had been opened up to reveal a strip of existence could just as easily close down again” (Peter Doig cited in: Paul Bonaventura, ‘Peter Doig: A Hunter in the Snow’, Artefactum, No. 9, 1994, p. 14). This ephemerality is of pivotal importance to the present work, but runs entirely in contrast to the spiritual permanence of Newman’s gigantic canvases. The conceit of the scene presented is that this is a landscape glimpsed peripherally; this is not a painting of nature, nor an idealised vision of it. Whereas the light that shows through in Newman’s Zip paintings points to the divine, Doig’s ‘Zips’ insist upon a human presence.
This sense of humanity is combined with a definite feeling of mystery. Clearly it is daytime – the only figure we see is lying in the grass outside – however the sky darkens in places and lightens in others. The flowers in the foreground are amorphous blotches of red, growths that pepper the organic lower section of the canvas; however the three horizontal abstract ridges of paint that cut through the canvas stand in cold opposition to that natural composition. The perspective shifts radically from the first to second band of the picture plane, from a block-like frontal view to a foreshortened landscape adorned by the house and trees. Finally, a crest of white paint across the upper register serves as a nod to the influence of man over his natural landscape – a telephone line that cuts through the scenery. These juxtapositions lend compositional tension to the painting, as well as a sense of intrigue. As 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’, cited in: Catherine Lampert and Richard Shiff, Eds. Peter Doig, New York 2011, p. 323). He conjures a sense of alien familiarity, at once nostalgic and enigmatic.
It is in this ambiguity and ambivalence that the inventiveness and precision of Doig’s panting is revealed. For all that there are debts owed throughout art history, from the Abstract Expressionists to Gustav Klimt’s jewel-like paintings of nature and Monet’s juxtaposition of the bucolic and the industrial, it is with Gerhard Richter that Doig’s practice resonates the most. 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 Richter’s postmodern re-validation of painting as an art form within an age of mechanical reproduction, Doig’s thematisation of the virtual screen confers a wholesale reinvention of the genre of epic landscape painting. His studio based practice utilises a vast visual archive of images culled from newspapers, postcards, film and album covers, as well as a stock of his own amateur video footage and photography of the landscape surrounding his parental home in Canada. For instance, the term ‘Grasshopper’, which appears in many of the artist’s works, refers both to the insect-like stance of the figure and a quotation Doig found in a book on ice-hockey that referenced the words of a nineteenth-century settler in Canada’s western prairies: “Man is a grasshopper here, a mere insect making way between the enormous discs of heaven and earth”, a quotation that, perhaps partly, informed the tripartite arrangement of this work and many others. Drawing on these disparate sources Doig taps into and indeed creates a collective virtual memory by sampling paradigms from art history and the ready-made images that infiltrate our everyday visual experience. In the artist’s words, “People have confused my paintings with being just about my own memories… But I am more interested in the idea of memory” (Peter Doig cited in: Exh. Cat. London, Tate Britain (and travelling), Peter Doig, 2008, p. 21).
This virtual memory created by Doig is dreamlike. It is unstable and temporally fluid, lacking a fixed identity. As a result, his paintings are deeply personal, and yet, the incidents and visions are left sufficiently open that any given person can harness and be affected by them. As Doig explains, he uses his own “experience [to] think about things that are a part of other people’s experience” (Peter Doig cited in: Paul Bonaventura, op. cit., p. 15). This desire explains the lack of straight landscapes in Doig’s work – he wants them to be be humanised by a person or a building, something that suggests habitation, which allows the viewer to experience the picture directly.
Detached from a specific period or location, Daytime Astronomy (Grasshopper) is a poetic testimony to the power of memory and image, and to the essential humanity of painting. Virtuosic in its exacting technique, which sees perspectival shifts and impasto peaks combine with modulated washes and jewel-like flecks of colour, the present work shows Doig at the height of his powers.
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