HILL HOUSES 1990-91
Peter Doig (1959 – )
- 200.1 X 240.3 CM
- OIL ON CANVAS
- Accession number
In 1990, Peter Doig had just finished an MA at Chelsea School of Art and as a winner of the Whitechapel Artists Award was on the cusp of recognition. He was producing paintings that beat a path away from the mainstream: ‘In the late 1980s and early 1990s most art had a clean, contemporary, slick look … I purposely made works that were hand¬made and homely looking.’ Distinctive Doig territory is staked out in Hill Houses, a frosty mirage that whiffs of narrative and memory, beck¬oning beyond the unframed canvas to something as un-contemporary as Monet’s Water Lilies
This is a picture whose scattered focus and jumps in perspective result in what Richard Shiff identifies as a ‘sensation of roaming’. Through the mistiness, the view takes us by surprise, as if swooping into the windscreen of a car as it races over the skyline. The road, a big vertical stripe, ought to guide us into the scene, but instead forefronts the flatness of the picture plane. Telegraph poles are blurry, not so much pacing out the landscape as shimmying across it. Only in the top third is distance suggested – pinprick windows, a tail-flick of road. It is a meet¬ing ground for the sublime and the kitsch, where sentimental markers, those marzipan houses and fairytale pines, effectively strike a match against the terror of the wilderness.
Doig’s story is one of returns. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, his family spent a couple of years in Trinidad before settling in Canada; Doig moved back to Britain, to study at St Martin’s School of Art, thereafter returning to Canada (he had a stint as scene painter for film sets in Montreal); it was back to London for his MA, and he now lives in Trinidad. Judith Nesbitt remarks, ‘His search for his subject has been curiously linked to his periodic geographical displacement, whereby the visual stimulus of his immediate geographic environment becomes released only with distance.’ Yet as much as the large-scale canvases are said to evoke the vast Canadian landscape of his youth, Doig screens off obvious subject matter. Reflecting on early works, he insists, ‘They weren’t paintings of Canada (though some were) but paintings of an idea of something that was maybe folk – bringing a sort of “homeliness” into art.’ This idea of homeliness serves to put hundreds of miles between Hill Houses, yellow-stained like an ancient tea tray, and that ‘clean, contemporary, slick look’. Fantasies of the open road, shivers of fear and longing: this is an image that creeps up on us, a souvenir of grunge (Nirvana’s cult album Nevermind, 1991, is counted among Doig’s collection of cassettes).
A photograph from National Geographic, loosely evoking a child¬hood spot in Quebec, has been isolated as a source, but even so, Hill Houses is a painting about painting as much as anything else. Notably, Doig amplifies the superficiality of snow in terms of its optical effect as well as its Christmas card connotations: ‘The snow is all the same size, it’s not perspectival, it’s this notion of the “idea” of snow which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it.’ This predilection for the ‘idea’ of things, and the emphasis on looking through the soft, untidy layers of paint, render the picture open to inference, correspondent to Doig’s working method. He prefers to keep paint¬ings unfinished for a period of gestation. He has described the need, on starting out, to open pots of paint all over the studio table and floor, and later to leave a painting alone for long stretches, being thought about, waiting to be returned to.
. ‘Kitty Scott in conversation with Peter Doig’, in Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott and Catherine Grenier, Peter Doig (London: Phaidon, 2007), 16.
. Richard Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat. (London: Tate, 2008), 33.
. Judith Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance’, in Peter Doig (2008), 18.
. ‘Keeping it real’, Doig interviewed by Karen Wright, Modern Painters (March 2006), 68.
. ‘Peter Doig’s Record Collection: A project by Matthew Higgs’, in Peter Doig: Blizzard seventy-seven, exh. cat. (Kiel: Kunsthalle zu Kiel, 1998), 146.
. ‘Peter Doig: Losing Oneself in the Looking’, Doig statement to Leo Edelstein, Flash Art, 31 (May–June 1998), 86.
. Doig in conversation with Chris Ofili, in ,i>Peter Doig (2008), 122
Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009