'Journey's real and metaphorical, places of arrival and departure, no-man's lands between waking and sleeping, and the slippage between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary, are the territories of Doig's art'
(A. Searle, 'A Kind of Blankness' in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52)
Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) is a captivating and exquisitely rendered painting depicting the heady heat and luscious verdure of the fertile tropics. Painted in 2003-04, two years after Peter Doig returned to live and work in Trinidad, it embodies the essence of the Caribbean. The hanging lianas and trees seem to shimmer with the silvery haze of humidity, alive with the unseen creatures of the jungle. The water of the river appears almost tangible: wet, glassy and green with its wealth of reflections and beams of sunlight. Doig expresses the shadows and shapes of the living, tropical environment through his use of rich expressive oil paint, generously splashed and poured, the composition falling in and out of focus from figurative to abstract. This effect is engendered through an artful assembly of languid drips, smooth loops and irregular blocks of colour, recalling the early abstraction of Mark Rothko. It is an arresting painting that appears familiar yet foreign, romantic yet elegiac, an image that triggers memory through Doig's mastery of paint. In the foreground, a red boat cuts a steady channel through the water, throwing up a frothy wake in its path. In the boat, six men crouch with crisp white shirts offsetting their halo of dark hair and skin. The scene is exotic, aesthetically evocative of the French Post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin. Yet Doig's paradise remains more elusive, leaving the viewer suspended in a state of uncertainty, like a broken film reel or a distant memory. It remains unclear where the uniformed boys are travelling to and what awaits them across the river, underneath the dense canopy of the forest.
Born in Scotland and raised between Trinidad and Canada, Peter Doig spent the formative years of his career in London studying first at the Wimbledon School of Art, St Martin's School of Art and finally at the Chelsea School of Art. It was at Chelsea that Doig really began to embrace the possibilities of painting, 'what [he] discovered in this very short period of time was that paint is like mud and can be drawn out in to trails and strokes like dangling vines, tendrils or branches. It can make a clean white shape, like a canoe or a broken inchoate mess of spatters' (A. Searle, 'A Kind of Blankness' in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52). In Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), these qualities are brought together with brilliant effect; Doig devoting himself to the shapes, colours and surfaces of his tropical idyll. Fluid drips of paint fall vertically from the virgin jungle into the glazed surface of the river, whilst the crimson hull of the boat records the bright glare and reflection of sunshine on water.
In 2000, Doig was offered the opportunity to travel to Trinidad to undertake a month long artist's residency. It was this sojourn to a place of his childhood that prompted Doig to leave London and settle in the country with his family two years later. At first, it was with a view to creating a body of work for his forthcoming show at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover in 2004, which included the painting Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), but soon he found himself wanting to stay. Doig's work consistently operates through this process of displacement, chronicling his own experiences of 'return': to London, to Canada and to Trinidad where the familiar becomes estranged and the boundaries between what is real, imagined and remembered become blurred. As the artist himself once noted:
'I'd been painting landscape - or an idea of landscape - in London, via my experiences in Canada it was never really that kind of real experience; it was like filtering through things [it] was always a kind of escape to make these paintings in the studio, because what was outside the door was so different really. The work became a different world that was the excitement in a way: trying to find this other place in my studio, in my urban studio, in my head' (Peter Doig quoted in J. Nesbitt, 'A Suitable Distance' in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London 2008, p. 18).
In Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), Doig draws together the visual impression of his colourful surroundings in Port of Spain, with the image from an uncaptioned postcard of southern India found in a junk shop in London, demonstrating the full extent of his artistic nomadism. His paintings always capture a sense of journey and have frequently included the motif of the solitary red canoe or boat as in 100 Years Ago [Carrera] (2001) and Figures in a Red Boat (2005-2007). As Adrian Searle once commented, 'journey's real and metaphorical, places of arrival and departure, no-man's lands between waking and sleeping, and the slippage between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary, are the territories of Doig's art' (A. Searle, op. cit., p. 52). In Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), the viewer joins Doig's crew on a boat ride through the tropical landscape. It appears like a frame from a film, or a projection from our own imaginary. As Doig has said, 'I'm interested in mediated, almost clichéd notions of a pastoral landscape, in how notions about the landscape are manifested and reinforced in, say, advertising or film. Yet at the same time many of the paintings are rooted in my own experience. There exists a tension between the often generic representation of a pastoral scene and the investment in my own experiences of the landscape.' (Peter Doig quoted in H. Wagner, 'The Fortunate Travel', Metropolitan, B. Schwenk et al. (eds.), exh. cat., Cologne, 2004).
The sumptuous colour palette and painterly effects employed by Doig, recall the aesthetics of Post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin. Yet unlike his predecessor, Doig is conscientious, determined not to perpetuate the 'white gaze' of exoticism. Instead, Doig creates an elusive, anachronistic image that binds together various eras, epochs and styles from the past to Doig's present in Trinidad. As Adrian Searle has said of the painting, 'the distance between us and them is measurable not in yards or miles but in years, as if the painting were looking backwards to another time' (A. Searle, op. cit., p. 55). In this respect, the combined contexts of the work correspond to the verses written by Derek Walcott's in his epic Omerus, whose protagonists come from the Caribbean Island of St Lucia, but are cast into the dramatic figures of Homer's Odyssey.
Doig's composition with its strokes and blocks of colour, recalls the early Abstract Expressionism of Mark Rothko. Since arriving in Trinidad, Doig has sought to make 'pure paintings, which evolve into a type of abstraction' (Peter Doig quoted in J. Nesbitt, op. cit., p. 19). This is particularly apparent in Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), where the image fluctuates between the figurative and abstract, the natural landscape evanescing into a haze of colour. There is a novel freedom to the application of paint, tone and texture, which Doig attributes to the special atmosphere in Trinidad: 'colour in this part of the world is very intense, and frequently you see incredible combinations. These clashing colours start making sense in the light. I am not the type of artist who makes direct reference to colour in that way, but the environment must be affecting me' (Peter Doig interview with Kitty Scott quoted in A. Searle et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 24). KA