The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is currently playing host to the most recent iteration in a spate of retrospectives of the ever-popular Peter Doig. It is, as I’ve come to expect of Doig, a wonder. In between viewings I often wonder whether Doig has pulled one over on me, whether his work is really as strong as it is in my memory of it. I approached this show with, what turned out to be, needless trepidation.
The thing is that Doig’s painted surfaces are so rich, so tactile they’re mesmeric. These surfaces are lost in reproduction, of course, they really are worth traveling for. Especially given how far spread his work has become, hastily gobbled up by museums and private collectors alike. But Doig’s is not just a wanton layering of paint for paint’s sake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but with Doig you get the sense that there’s a lot more going on. It’s a thrill to behold.
Sensitively curated, and blessedly non-chronological, the show’s arrangement is guided more by visual echoes than academic strong-arming. Works made at disparate time periods rub shoulders. None of Doig’s clusters of themes are too well defined or contained, so that his paint encrusted ‘Ski Jacket’ (1994) sits happily alongside his gossamer thin ‘Man Dressed as Bat’ (2007) . These chronological disconnections, visual harmonies and dissonances are important. They’re fitting, given Doig’s fluid working process according to which many of his paintings undergo an accrual of paint over a series of years, not months or weeks and so the production of single images overlaps considerably. Here, choice tasters are hung from across his oeuvre. It’s a whistle stop tour but it gives you a solid overview of the sinuous trajectory that this insatiable artist’s mind treads. Scenes range from splattered winter snow, to the eerily swampy or jungley, to the sun bleached Caribbean feeling of his later works.
There are also some wonderful touches in the exhibition hang, my favourite of which comes midway. Two paintings figure two bohemian-looking gentlemen painted alone, one in front of a shop window, in ‘House of Pictures’ (2000-2002), and the other before a backdrop of frames of disappearing paintings, in ‘Metropolitain (House of Pictures)’ (2004). These are the only paintings in the room, but they head up the long curved corridor that holds a large selection of Doig’s extensive prints and drawings. This room (let’s call it the Louisiana ‘Hall of Pictures’) elegantly bridges the two halves of the exhibition; it acts like a palette cleanser, a respite in readiness for the next course.
After all, Doig’s thoroughness, can feel oppressive, sometimes verging on laboured. His paintings loom large in the museum’s modest rooms. His colour palette and texture can rampage within his single simple visual frameworks (horizontal bands, vertical uprights and grids being firm favourites). It can build an overall sense of sickly airlessness especially in the final windowless basement. ‘Okahumkee (Some Other Peoples Blues)’ (1990) is a tangle of weeds and trees and loping water lines; ‘Ski Jacket’ (1994) is a mosh pit of splattered paint; ‘Paragon’ (2006), with its burnt orange expanse, heavy greens and shadowy figures seems skyless and claustrophobic; ‘Concrete Cabin II’ (1992) is strained and unforgiving. ‘Pelican (Stag)’ (2003), however, is allowed partial respite from the undergrowth, as the ghostly figure of a semi naked man stares out at us from a dense jungle shoreline. It is shot through with a wash of early morning sky blue, a vertical slab of paint tipped down the middle of the canvas. ‘Man Dressed as Bat’ (2007) is another breath of fresh air here, with its thin washes, restrained detail and feather-light touch. Elsewhere in the show, a peppering of paintings including ‘Olin MK IV’ (1995), ‘Figures in Red Boat’ (2005-2007) and ‘House of Pictures (Carrera)’ (2004) provide a similarly invigoratingly sharp zing.
Despite the familiarity of his work, the simplicity — and sometimes derivative nature — of his subject matter, as well as its relatively restricted range, you always sense Doig’s undying and overwhelming enthusiasm for image production. His work has a tendancy to appear overexcited, lapping up the opportunity to look and make and remake with a gusto that is contagious. His solitary figures and filmic landscapes, bedecked with polychromatic painterly jewels and sparks and washes, and often nodding to painters past, ring out joyfully. I can’t help but sing along.