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Peter Doig - Amid All The Nonsense

Words:

Edd Norval
October 20, 2021

Scottish culture is a contradiction. On the one hand, Scottish people are straight-talking no-bullshit types. Honesty and integrity are two of the most revered traits one can have. On the other hand, Scotland is also the only country in the world with a magical creature as its national animal (the Unicorn) as well as famous mythological creatures residing in lakes that tops a long list of magical lore.

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There’s almost a silent acknowledgement of these two sides of the Scottish psyche meeting, like two confluent rivers that have completely different colours, yet run side by side, hardly mingling. It raises its head when you hear your grandmother make a statement, guided by intuition and realised as an ‘old wive’s tale’.


When The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones said, "Amid all the nonsense, impostors, rhetorical bullshit and sheer trash that pass for art in the 21st century, Doig is a jewel of genuine imagination, sincere work and humble creativity," we were treated to an unknowing psychoanalysis of the Scottish mind - straight to the point, but informed by magic.


It is in the vein of magical realism that most of Doig’s art fits. Jones is right in what he wrote, Doig is certainly a ‘jewel’ and his paintings shimmer like hidden gems. They aren’t loud, aren’t showy, but contain such a powerful emotional impact that it beggar’s belief - particularly when we understand that he emerged at a similar time to the ostentatious YBAs.

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Magical Realism is a movement largely associated with writing and film from Latin America like Post Tenebras Lux or Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, where stories of the ethereal become woven into stories of both social and cultural relevance - at once cutting in their insights into Latin American society, whilst doubling up as something truly wonderful and otherworldly. 


Within this interzone of real and unreal is Doig who, although born in Edinburgh, has spent a large part of his life away from home, studying in London whilst living and working in Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. Still, it is with something distinctly Scottish that Doig’s works come into existence, regardless of them depicting landscapes from various stages of his youth in Canada or adult life farther afield. 


Layering his landscapes in a way that is formal and conceptual, the two visual languages combine in something dreamily melancholic, leaving his viewer with a sense of transformation - stages of life that are remembered very differently to how they actually occurred, as if Doig himself has reached into our own dreams and painted moments that we vaguely recognise.

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In their simplicity, there’s an element of childhood in his landscapes. Each year, around Christmas time, people from the same part of the world as Doig are transported to another snowy planet when Irn Bru’s iconic annual ‘Snowman’ advert plays. Whilst the song goes a long way to its status as a classic advert, the animation style is what truly leaves an impression, borrowing from children’s books without doing anything at all to isolate an older audience. It’s the great leveller, an advert that makes every age group feel exactly the same way.


Doig’s landscapes might shift from the snowy to the far more exotic climes of the tropical Trinidad, but the primitive style can’t help but transcend generations of art and ideas, identifying within us a want to create, to express ourselves in such a simple way that it defines any real way of writing about it. Jones, a renowned critic, got far closer than I, but in my inability I can take solace, because things of such generational beauty rarely come along and when they do, the words aren;t there yet. In Doig’s quiet, subtle and magical art, we have exactly that. 

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