Stroke of genius: Peter Doig's eerie art whisks the mind to enchanted places
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2015-05-19 Size:
It must be the most expensive canoe in history. This week in Manhattan a painting by Edinburgh-born Peter Doig of a small white boat lost in a tangle of weeds and……

Swamped by Peter Doig, which fetched a record $26m at a US auction. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

It must be the most expensive canoe in history. This week in Manhattan a painting by Edinburgh-born Peter Doig of a small white boat lost in a tangle of weeds and tree stumps in some remote wilderness went under the hammer for $26m (£16.6m) in a sale that puts him unquestionably in the top financial echelon of living artists. It is the latest chapter in the most unlikely and heartwarming success story in 21st-century art.

Doig is a decent man, a generous teacher and a talented artist. More than a decade ago, I visited his studio when I was writing a catalogue for an exhibition he was about to have in Santa Monica with his friend Chris Ofili. They had neighbouring studios in east London at the time: both now live and work mostly in Trinidad. Doig spent most of the time praising Ofili. Yet all around us in his studio were his own paintings which have since become some of the most famous of our time.

Doig in his London studio. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Those canoes. In Doig’s eerie composition 100 Years Ago – one version has a pink sky and pale blue sea, another has a dark blue sky and deeper colours in the water – time is suspended. The man in the canoe seems utterly adrift, a rootless adventurer far from home, or perhaps an escaped prisoner. On the horizon is a sinister island that looks military or penal. In fact, it is the abandoned Carrera prison island off the coast of Trinidad. Working from a photograph, he has not attempted to make this island’s place on the horizon realistic. The disjointed perspectives add to the unease of the painting, its creation of a world that is a desolate beautiful dream.

Swamped, the work that set a new record price for Doig’s art this week, is one of his earliest paintings of canoes and one of the earliest paintings that can be called a classic example of the Doig style. It was painted in 1990, just when he was starting to paint like Peter Doig. If this is worth £16.6m, you can’t help wondering what one of his best paintings might cost: for Doig’s work has got stronger as well as stranger over the years, evolving as good painting does to become ever more free and profound.

What is it that makes a Peter Doig painting such a hot property? He is more expensive than Damien Hirst, whose top price for a single work at auction was $17m. That was in 2007 and it is hard to imagine Hirst setting any records today as his artistic reputation continues to decline. There seems to be a moral here. Hirst appears fascinated by money; Doig does not seem interested in it at all. He teaches, when he’s not in Trinidad, at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf – and he really does care about this side of his work.

For once, the art market has got it right. Amid all the nonsense, impostures, 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. His art will last, and that is what his collectors have cottoned on to. They are making a sound investment in sheer quality.

Paragon, a 2006 painting by Doig.

Doig’s art will last because it embodies a unique, beguiling vision. His paintings take the mind to new places, far-off places, forgotten places. He paints landscapes but it would make no sense to call him a landscape artist. Rather, like the early 20th-century metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico, he creates spooky fictional places inhabited by bizarre outcasts. In one of his most peculiar images, two personages dressed in militaristic Austro-Hungarian or Prussian pre-1918 uniforms welcome their guest – you or me, the person looking into the painting – at the entrance to a curving driveway with bejewelled walls. They seem to be the guardians of Doig’s painted world: accept their invitation and you could enter this place, go up that driveway to who knows where. But it looks dangerous. Their clownish jollity is vaguely sinister. Would you really accept their offer? The painting is called Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre. It is as creepy as it is gorgeous.

It is Doig’s ambiguous creation of places that makes his art so endlessly fascinating and tantalising. He paints jungles and snow-covered mountains, island paradises and ski lodges. Indeed, he paints the geography of 21st-century escape and pleasure: the places people dream about, the holidays they long for. Skiing in the mountains, basking in the tropical sun. Peter Doig creates his imaginary realms of joy with lush soaked-in colour. He’s a painter who never splats out big brushy gestures. Instead his colours blot into the canvas and pool on it. Sometimes he uses linen, which gives an even more blotted effect. Over the lakes of colour he adds pinpoints of dazzle – stars, lamps, fireflies.

Detail from At the Edge of Town, 1986, by Doig. Photograph: Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, London

And yet for all this sensuality, the places he paints are not quite there, not quite attainable. The idyll is always somewhere else. The people who live in his lost islands are timewasters on the beach or passing faces in the forest. Reality, in one of his paintings, is an old man alone on a Trinidad road.

Doig is the painter of the global age, a traveller without a destination, between cultures, between jobs, looking for paradise and finding a prison on the horizon. His art portrays the dreams we share, the freedoms we crave, on the beach with a can of Trinidad’s favourite beer, Stag, as another sun goes down. Out on the silent water is an acid casualty in a canoe. Long may the art market fund his ghostly voyage.

[Editor] 尹迎杰