Peter Doig’s richly evocative and quietly complex paintings draw on a rich brew of sources that span art history, found images, family photographs and remembered incidents to conjure up what he has described as “nowhere places”. While the YBAs were making a throat-grabbing song and dance in the early 1990s, this Scottish-born, Canadian-bred artist’s depictions of snowy landscapes, houses hidden in woods, canoes seen across water and roadside vistas seemed completely out of the loop. By the end of the decade, however, and in great part due to Doig’s influence—he was a hugely popular tutor at the Royal College of Art between 1994 and 2001—young artists were yet again reclaiming subjects from the traditionalist camp and making paintings of the world around them. Now his work is massively in demand; his 1991 painting White Canoe sold for £5.7m last year (below), a record price for a living European painter. However, market hype and art world razzmatazz have never been of much interest to Doig, who since 2002 has lived and worked on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. We spoke to him on the eve of a major exhibition opening at Tate Britain on 5 February.
The Art Newspaper: Your friend and fellow artist Chris Ofili, who has also come to live in Trinidad, says that living outside the London art world has enabled him to be less self conscious and more ruthless in his artistic decisions—do you share this view?
Peter Doig: It does give you freedom in that way because you don’t feel like there’s anyone looking over your shoulder, but Chris and I were pretty private within our studio practice back in London anyway. The Tate show consists of 80% existing work but there’s also a lot of work that hasn’t been seen in England and a lot of work made after 2002 which was the last time I showed in London. I hope that the new work reflects some changes.
TAN: What kind of changes?
PD: I think Trinidad took me by surprise in that it’s such a potent place visually: as soon as you open up the door it’s like, boom! Even though I knew it from my childhood, for someone who’s not lived here all their life you are confronted with something which even superficially is exotic—it’s just different, you know? I purposely tried to avoid this at first by painting the place by proxy, making these places from postcards and things like that. But now I don’t think I’m referring back to my past here, [the work] seems to be more about things I’m experiencing in the here and now, which is unusual for me.
TAN: That’s interesting, as I was going to talk about the way in which you seem to explore a general idea of memory in your paintings which takes viewers to a place where they can unlock past associations of their own. But now you say there’s something more immediate going on.
PD: Yes—maybe that’s the power of the place, it’s so present in a way.
TAN: I read that you like to surround yourself with a lot of your work in the studio, do you work on a number of pieces simultaneously?
PD: Yes, one of the paintings that I’ve just sent to Tate I started in 2000 and I kind of picked away at it and finished it just at the beginning of last week. Then there are other ones that I’ve just finished that I started maybe a couple of years ago. Sometimes I just don’t want to spoil them, and sometimes I don’t really know what do to for a while. Actually two paintings I wanted to finish for the Tate I just wasn’t happy with, and so I just kept them and I’m hoping to finish those for the next leg of the show which is in Paris. I feel that there was no point in rushing them because I got to the stage where I didn’t really know how to resolve them quickly and it would have been a shame to finish them just for the sake of it.
TAN: In the Tate catalogue you say that you were searching “to make pure paintings which evolve into a type of abstraction”. What do you mean by that? Would you ever paint a completely abstract work?
PD: In some ways that would solve a lot of problems! But I don’t think it’s an easy route there, it’s something that has got to come through your own doing, making paintings and allowing them to become more open. I don’t know, for instance, how Brice Marden became the painter he is and whether or not he really considers himself to be an abstract painter. A lot of his paintings refer to place, and yes, my paintings also refer to place but they have an imagistic element. Maybe as time goes on that element will become more abstract but I don’t think that it can suddenly just happen overnight.
TAN: A section of the Tate show is devoted to your works on paper—what is the relationship between the oils and the works on paper? Do they come after the oils as well as before?
PD: Usually before, but sometimes they do come after, or during. My reasons for showing them are that I have never shown any works on paper in England and I have shown them a lot in Germany and the States, but also I think they may give the viewer some idea of how the paintings evolve and why they end up like they do, particularly in the case of some of the newer paintings.
TAN: Would you see the works on paper as studies or independent works in their own right? Or is the distinction irrelevant?
PD: Some of them definitely are studies, they are the ones that are trying to work something out alongside the making of a painting—but some of them become models for paintings as well.
TAN: I know it’s not a subject that you enjoy discussing, but how did it feel when White Canoe made such a massive price at auction early last year?
PD: I don’t think that anyone can really understand what the feeling is like unless it happens to them. I suppose the immediate feeling was sort of nauseous, as if someone had just grabbed the rug and pulled it out from under my feet. In a way I’ve kind of enjoyed my invisible status, I don’t think I’m an invisible artist but no one ever really commented when paintings of mine sold for what I think is a lot of money, like a million dollars or whatever. It was like everything had slipped under the radar and then all of a sudden it was this big thing. It was never really one of my absolute favourite paintings and so I was quite surprised. In a sense I’m not really a businesslike artist—I’m not in production, as it were, so I find it quite strange really, I accept it as something that’s happened but I don’t really understand it.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How Trinidad gave my art immediacy'