'Night Playground is unusual among Peter Doig's paintings. Unlike the artist's depictions of isolated buildings within landscapes or panoramic vistas of ski slopes which a rural locale that is both anywhere and nowhere, this work is firmly rooted in time and place...
'In Night Playground Doig exploits the spectator's ability to 'read' a scene as a cinematic image; however, each time he gives constant reminders that this is not a film still but a painting and that a single closed reading is therefore not possible. One wants to be able to imagine the sound of a ball hitting the high fence and children's voices echoing off the surrounding buildings. For such an urban scene it is disconcerting that the residual feelings are of an overwhelming sense of silence, a muffled static stillness that both defines and contradicts the movements of the flickering figures and the slow disintegration of their environment' (F. Lunn, 'On Night Playground, pp. 122-24, Peter Doig Blizzard seventy-seven, exh.cat., Bielefeld, 1998, pp. 122-24).
Across an epic canvas, night falls on an urban playground. Lit by a combination of the fading light of a setting sun in the background and a string of artificial lights which run across the canvas in the foreground, Night Playground represents a direct clash between nature and the man-made, the traditional and the contemporary, painted with an effortless understanding of the history of painting and the material of paint itself. Painted in 1997-8, the densely constructed composition consists of a series of abstract processes and formal compositional devices whilst creating a dreamily atmospheric and real figurative scene. On this scale, the viewer is enveloped by a twilit world of mystery and beauty, filled with a kaleidoscopic range of colours. Seemingly constructed from three distinct horizontal bands, representing the earth at the bottom, the landscape in the middle and the sky, above the string of lights, the composition of this work calls to mind other major works of Doig such as The House that Jacques Built (Tel Aviv Museum of Art) of 1992 and Daytime Astronomy (Private Collection) of 1997/8. Here within this framework, we also find a further distinct definition of the composition through the middle, with the lower half being viewed through the blur of the fence which enshrouds the playground and the upper half being viewed clearly. Capturing the same warm, mysterious light that characterised his 1993 painting Night Fishing and transposing it into a rare urban setting, Night Playground presents us with a range of contrasts between the textures of the various elements within the composition, as they seemingly melt from visibility.
The bars of the playground fence recall Francis Bacon, who was an acknowledged reference for Doig in his Figure in a Mountain Landscape paintings of the same year. Here, Doig has encapsulated the figures in a rectangular cage, in much the same way as Bacon captured his Popes of the early 1950s. In a dramatic change from his expansive landscape paintings of the great outdoors with single figures lost in grand space, here Doig creates a sense of claustrophobia as several figures battle for supremacy in the playground. At the centre of the composition, one is seen running like one of Eadweard Muybridge's figures in motion. Viewed through the lens of the fence and their agitated movement, the figures become a blur, almost dream-like. Interspersed by the series of different coloured posts which form the structure of the fence and lit by the series of differently coloured light bulbs above their heads, the influence of the 'sublime' abstract stripe or 'zip' paintings of Barnett Newman becomes more than a subtle reference.
To their left, the one remaining 'natural' feature of the landscape is the tree. Towering over the composition, it is lovingly depicted through a series of veils of colour and dabs of the paintbrush. The web of processes and gorgeous interweaved textures make many of Doig's work from this period stand out. Shown at dusk, punctuated by coloured lights and the various details in the foreground, this scene melts between the visible and the indiscernible, between the solid and the fluid, between the constant and the ephemeral. The characters in the playground are fleeting flickers, insubstantial entities contrasting with the more rigid geometry of the architecture in the background. As he has explained, 'Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it... [The size of paintings] is about the idea of getting absorbed into them, so you physically get lost' (Doig, quoted in R. Schiff, 'Incidents', pp. 21-43, Peter Doig, exh.cat., J. Nesbitt (ed.), London, 2008, p. 33). The viewer cannot escape the painter's mark, meaning that Doig's own experience in creating this work is transmitted to us. 'It's the act that is to be seen,' he said. 'When you paint something it becomes a fact. At the same time, it's a question of how much you let the material take over' (Doig, quoted in H. Fricke, 'Drifter: An Interview with Peter Doig', 2004, reproduced on DB Artmag at www.deutche-bank-art.com).
This balance between the motif and the emphatically textured substance through which it has been conjured into existence introduces a strange abstract dimension to Night Playground that is emphasised by the rigid geometry of the buildings in the background. The surface of this painting is divided into squares and rectangles which, while evoking the cityscape, also have a hint of abstract order, as though some spectral hint of Piet Mondrian was loitering beneath the surface - particularly in the brickwork. At the same time, it recalls the deliberate flatness and sense of order that Gustav Klimt introduced into his late landscapes.
These layers add to the idea of some underlying geometry, as though Doig were revealing some order in existence at large, some mystical sense of beauty to be found even in this scene of a city playground. He has invoked the pictorial structures of Romantic landscape painting and transposed them here, lending Night Playground a poignantly evocative atmosphere of mysterious beauty. Through the combination of this focus on the horizontal, his use of the familiar-- a non-specific cityscape-- and the golden tones that dominate so much of the canvas and recall old yellowed photos, Doig has tapped into a strange hinterland of the mind, triggering some sense of displaced nostalgia in the viewer. Despite this, Night Playground is not about our memories, or indeed about Doig's, as he has specified: 'People have confused my paintings with being just about my own memories. Of course we cannot escape these. But I am more interested in the idea of memory' (Doig, quoted in R. Schiff, 'Incidents', pp. 21-43, Peter Doig, exh.cat., J. Nesbitt (ed.), London, 2008, p. 21).
This scene, then, does not show any specific episode of Doig's life, or indeed of our own. Its urban theme appears, like the major series of paintings of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation building complex in Briey which culminated in this year, to hint at social critique in their depiction of a faded and decayed vision of a constructed utopia. For that is the role of the playground within the city, a place where youths can meet and play, a space designed to promote societal and physical wellbeing. Yet this playground appears faded and mysterious, the strange glimmer-like figures playing upon it implying the impermanence of life and heightening that atmosphere of nostalgia that fills the greatest of Doig's paintings.