Have I seen you somewhere before?
Like all popular painters, Peter Doig does work which looks curiously familiar, even when it's brand-new
Sunday 28 June 1998
The pictures are memorable for more that one reason. First, we have never seen anything quite like them before. But secondly, they insistently yet elusively remind us of things or paintings which we have known about for ages. So Doig's paintings are both original and familiar. He has invented some painting techniques for himself, but is not an innovator. Popular artists never are. It's the sense of familiarity that counts. We have an uncanny feeling that this is not the first time that any Doig painting has been before our eyes. A canvas could have left the studio yesterday, and still it has the flavour of something we had forgotten about and can now half-remember. The memorability of Doig's pictures resides in their summoning of the nature of memory, faint rather than powerful, and of places rather than events, of leisure more than work, of children and adolescents rather than adults.
Doig is a figurative realist whose art is all in the past tense, and who assures us of its truth because we know that it comes from photography. One can always tell when a painting has been based on a photograph. Often we don't like this knowledge, especially if it seems like cheating. There are some painters, generally rather bad portraitists, who paint exclusively from photographs, and there are photo-realists whose intention is to make paintings look like camerawork. Anyway, photography-into-painting always bears traces of artifice. Doig's distinction is that we are convinced that the artifice comes from his heart. Much of his work is autobiographical, as we learn from a useful little film directed by the Whitechapel's Simon Grant. One imagines that Doig has kept albums of family photographs, or has collected other photographs that he loves so much that their images have become part of his family.
Doig, born in Edinburgh in 1959, was brought up in Canada between 1960 and 1979, and after art school in London was again in Canada at the end of the 1980s. He's a North American artist. Doig paints forests in snow, remote timber houses, cold skies, adolescents or young adults in baseball caps, skiing and canoeing. There is always the implication of great distance. Indeed, an interior by Doig is unimaginable. In such ways he relates to many Canadian landscapists. Perhaps he is more sophisticated than those lovers of prairies and lakes, but Doig shares with them a plain pleasure in remote but quotidian sights.
Part of the sophistication is that his influences are so carefully concealed. There's a good deal of actual painting in these generally large canvases - painting in the sense of brushwork, palette- knife work, dots and smudges, choice of colour, passages that get us from one part of the picture to another. But whenever we detect that Doig has learnt these things from other people, the influence somehow slides away from our eyes. I think he's benefited from dozens of other artists, but of course he declares no aesthetic allegiances, as is characteristic of popular painters. In the long run, this may turn out to be a weakness. Impressive though Doig's paintings are, they are the result of a balancing act, and lack emotional directness. They tell us about nostalgia and odd corners of life, but it's life in absentia.
Upstairs at the Whitechapel is a fairly large, well-judged show in commemoration of Aubrey Williams (1926-90). His best works, the big pictures with musical titles, come from the brush of a brave and exuberant personality. Williams painted them in 1981, but they draw on the styles of Fifties international modernism. This was the period when Williams first made convincing art. So it looks as though he was somewhat lost in the 1960s, then recovered his inspiration late in life. For the details of his career, I recommend the generous exhibition catalogue, which has a full chronology by Anne Walmsley.
Williams was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (Guyana), had a difficult time as a young man as the result of political conditions, and came to Britain in 1952. Walmsley's account of his life here has excellent information about London art life in the post-war years. Williams was a part of its love of experiment and determination not to be provincial. He lived in Maida Vale, Swiss Cottage and West Hampstead, and in rented rooms imagined partnerships with such artists as Diego Rivera (Mexican), Matta (Chilean), Wilfredo Lam (Cuban) and, perhaps especially, Arshile Gorky (Armenian-American). He was never to reach their level, but Williams thought big. A virtue of both his successful and unsuccessful painting is its ambition. His smaller pieces are more likely to let him down, while the catalogue reproduces excellent murals from 1970 at Georgetown airport.
Whitechapel, E1 (0171 522 0687), to 16 Aug.
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