'His [Doig's] best work occupies some uneasy space between anecdote and abstract; it never lets you forget either its reference in the real world, nor its painterly surface. Alongside his canoe pictures, the best expression of this is perhaps his Concrete Cabin series, made in 1994, which also casts light on some of his recurring preoccupations.' (T. Adams, 'Record Painter', The Observer, 27 January 2008).
Executed on a grand, panoramic scale, the sublimely atmospheric scene of Concrete Cabin West Side represents arguably the greatest example of Peter Doig's most famous and extensive series of paintings of Le Corbusier's master project: Unit d'Habitation de Briey-en- Forêt. A series which Doig began in 1991 and which occupied him for most of the 1990s, three of the Concrete Cabins including the present work, formed the backbone of his 1994 Turner Prize installation at the Tate and the series was also given a room to itself in his recent touring retrospective. The current owner acquired the work during a visit to Doig's studio in advance of his first exhibition of the series at Victoria Miro Gallery, London in 1994 and chose this work from the entire content of the show. Throughout the series, we are witness to one of the most renowned architectural and utopian follies of the twentieth century, a vast urban edifice glanced at through the foliage which has begun to consume it. These are images of the battle between nature and the man-made, between abstraction and figuration, and the paint itself becomes a metaphor for the passing of time. What sets this work apart from the others in the series, is that unlike most of the rest of the works which are set further into the woods, here we have a totally unique viewpoint, up close and right at the ground floor entrance to the building, on the threshold of the battle. Only one other work gets as close, Concrete Cabin II, and both paintings deploy an incredible range of painterly techniques and surfaces, alongside the gorgeous symphony of the linear perspective which peels away from the frontality of the trees; at its most basic the hard geometric perspectival line and colour of Modernism against the controlled painterly chromatic veils and Abstract Expressionism which depicts the foliage. It is only with this proximity to the building that we encounter the unique collision between the blinding light of the building being glanced at so directly through the brooding darkness of the forest. Thus the work manages to combine a unique handling of the painterly processes and philosophies of art history as a profound metaphor for our social existence.
The love affair with this subject began in 1991 during Doig's brief visit to Unit d'Habitation de Briey-en-Fort in northeast France. This seminal and much debated building was one of a small group around Europe completed by Le Corbusier with the collaboration of the painter architect, Nadir Afonso between 1947-1965 and which came to transform the way living quarters were organised in the Post-War period. Based on the Soviet Communal Housing project, the Narkomfin building in Moscow, these buildings, constructed in concrete, incorporated a complex interchange of internalised 'vertical cities' to allow for a complete way of life in one building. However what once appeared to be the ultimate futuristic utopia gradually became seen as architectural folly and Doig's vision is one of the passing of Modernism and by extension, the passing of time itself. Where Le Corbusier set the Unit among woodland to create the ideal meeting between nature and culture, Doig invests the architecture with a sense of loss and foreboding, in the ultimate Post-Modern painting.Doig had seen the Unit d'Habitation while travelling through France, and the distinctly complex and sombre tone of the painting was in part informed by his experiences there, marking it out from his earlier pictures of buildings: 'Visiting the building in Briey, seeing the way it was situated there in the forest reminded me of much more modest buildings I had painted, but I ended up painting it as well, probably in quite a different way than I had painted other structures ... Whereas other buildings had represented a family or maybe a person somehow, this building seemed to represent thousands of people. When I went to see the Le Corbusier building for the first time, I never dreamed that I would end up painting it. I went for walk in the woods on one visit, and as I was walking back I suddenly saw the building anew. I had no desire to paint it on its own, but seeing it through the trees, that is when I found it striking' (Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott & C. Grenier, Peter Doig, London, 2007, p. 16). It is telling that Doig later explained that it was less the experience of seeing the building than that of seeing it in reproduction that inspired him to create Concrete Cabin West Side and its sister pictures.
'The building took me by surprise as a piece of architecture,' he said. 'But it was not until I saw the photographs I had taken of the building through the trees that it became interesting. That made me go back and look at it again. I was surprised by the way the building transformed itself from a piece of architecture into a feeling. It was all emotion suddenly' (Doig, quoted in T. Adams, 'Record Painter', The Observer, 27 January 2008). In this way, the image has undergone a series of transformations, from the actual edifice in the landscape, to the small snapshot, to this huge painting. The work is a very large scale painting of a photographic snapshot and Doig emphasises this by reproducing the globules of paint which gathered on the photograph as it sat around his studio, creating a further layer in the compositional equation, which includes the building itself, the foliage in front of it and the surface of the photograph itself. A complex sequence of separations has been placed between the viewer and the building, emphasising the artist's own physical efforts in creating this painting. As Doig has commented: 'Sometimes paint gets spilled or sprayed on them, and it adds an unexpected layer that you can then refer to. The reality of the original feels less constricting, and this provides an opening. It takes the reality away from the photograph and turns it into a more abstract image' (Doig, quoted in Searle, Scott & Grenier, op. cit., 2007, p. 14).
When studied up close, the thick chalky white lines which construct the building as it disappears through the painting, can actually be glanced through the tree layers. Where Gustav Klimt has tackled this kind of subject matter in works such as Oberosterreiches Bauernhaus, 1911-1912, his focus was more on the light and the integration of foliage with the house behind it. Working on a much larger scale, in Concrete Cabin West Side, Doig is more focused on the painterly vocabulary. The hard edged surface and exacting perfection of the crisp modules of Modernist colour collides directly with the intricate veils and gorgeous translucency of the turquoise, yellow and red which shimmer between the tree branches in the right, centre and left of the painting respectively. Gerhard Richter-like abstract brush strokes, executed in one single journey down the canvas, define the composition of the trees and thick globules of spattered and spilled paint fleck the surface, reminding one of Francis Bacon's regular controlled outbursts in front of the canvas. The rare proximity to the building that we have in this painting, allows us to view the ground just in front of it as the sunlight hits it, allowing for this sublime depiction of atmospheric light. With the grand scale, one feels actually present in front of the scene as if emerging from a dense forest to the light at the end of the tunnel. Like Richter, Doig is exploring the entire notion, or validity, of painting by exploring its very vocabulary. Doig, though, is immersed, he is subjective, his picture is filled with mood and the aroma of faded nostalgias, as though we were leafing through a stranger's photo album: it is this poignant and potent sense of mystery that results in the incredible lyricism and atmosphere that characterize his greatest works. As he himself has said, he is 'trying to find images that have some sort of resonance rather than meaning' (Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Charley's Space, exh.cat., Maastricht & Nmes, 2003, p. 31).