Peter Doig's paintings absorb the viewer into a world that combines the mystery of a disjointed narrative with the materiality of the picture itself. In Red House, executed in 1995-96, Doig presents the viewer with a strange wintry scene. A red house is seen through some threadbare, leafless trees and a veil of falling snow. Closer to the viewer, on what appears to be either an icy rural track or even a frozen stream, are an array of characters painted almost in silhouette, their bodies unmodulated by details and instead filled with a kaleidoscopic haze of tiny specks of paint, like constellations of accumulated oils, giving the paradoxical impression that these people are made of voids relative to the materiality of so much of the rest of the surface while they are also made, as it were, of stars...
Doig's paintings are often infused with a heady atmosphere of disjointed nostalgia. They appear to be snapshots from his life, from his Canadian upbringing. In Red House, the eponymous building looks as though it might have its origins in the artist's own memories. However, as he explained, "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, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., London, 2008, p. 21). When Red House was painted, Doig was living in London; however, he had spent some time back in Canada, and it was on his return that Canadian themes became a more potent and frequent presence in his work. However, people mistakenly assumed his pictures were based on family snapshots. Instead, Doig uses a range of materials, from pictures he has taken to others he has culled from magazines or indeed from tourism brochures. When painting Canadian subjects, he found that the leaflets in Canada House in London presented an image that was more archetypal, more clichéed, even, and often used these.
This element of biography or reference was deliberately skewed by Doig's experiences both in and, crucially, away from Canada. It was at a distance, while immersed in the life of another nation, that he came to a more profound understanding of the role, or even meaning, of Canada in his pictures: "So many of the paintings are of Canada, but in a way I want it to be more of an imaginary place-- a place that's somehow a wilderness" (Doig, quoted in Ibid., p. 11). In this sense, his Canada represents both home and a strange world of frontier mentalities, of margins and adventures, of peril and loneliness and even existentialism.
In this strange duality, this paradoxical role played by Canada in his pictures as both an alien and hostile environment and one to which the artist, and by extension the viewer, is emotionally bound, touches upon Sigmund Freud's notion of The Uncanny. In his essay on the subject, Freud had pointed out that the German word for 'uncanny', Unheimlich, had a strange semantic overlap with its opposite, Heimlich. Secrets, and therefore the unknown, exist within the realm of the home, of the Heimlich, and yet in this way become directly related to the unfamiliar, the strange the Unheimlich. It is in straddling this peculiar territory, this disjointed, nostalgic, mysterious and evocative zone of ambiguity, that Doig's great paintings such as Red House gain their strange and profound power. Here, the red house itself speaks of home comforts, of simple pleasures, of straightforward and straight-speaking country life. Yet the shadowy figures in the foreground, these flickering shades, as well as the church-like building in the background, add an air of the supernatural, the haunted, the sinister, the unexplained.
Red House's sense of the uncanny is emphasised by one of the picture's more specific references: Edvard Munch's painting Red Virginia Creeper, from 1898-1900. Doig himself, in 1994-- the year before he started Red House-- included Munch's picture in the list he compiled of the 'Top Ten House Painters,' reproduced in the Phaidon monograph on Doig written by Adrian Searle, Kitty Scott and Catherine Grenier. That he should have selected the troubled Norwegian artist, with his idiosyncratic expressionism, is a telling insight into the areas of the psyche that Doig seeks to stimulate in his viewer, even if he himself is retaining a deliberate distance from direct experiential involvement with the theme of the painting.
In such a direct reference to the work of another artist, Doig reveals some of the extent to which Red House is a painting not just about memory and experience, but also about painting itself. When he studied as an artist in London, he found himself deliberately reacting to the sheen and gleam and precision of so much of the art of his contemporaries and the luminaries of that period. His own pictures are in part a reaction to the increasing neglect that pure painting was beginning to suffer. He has presented a deliberately folk-y subject in a deliberately hand-made manner, emphasising the process of the picture's creation, heightening our awareness of the materiality of the paint itself.
This is underscored by the presence of the a device which became particularly associated with Doig's paintings, the sense of a veil between the viewer and the main motif. In Red House, this is accomplished by the snow-- mere flecks of white scattered across the canvas to give the sense of tumbling flakes-- and the trees in the foreground. These deliberately obscure some of the view. They disrupt the viewing experience while bringing our clear focus to the surface itself. In one way, this can be seen to undermine the entire nature of the illusion of the painting, emphasising the simple fact that Red House comprises an amalgamation of paints on a surface. And yet on the other, this compositional device these obstacles to our view show Doig attempting to capture a more authentic impression of the world as we see it: "Instead of painting the façade of a building and then shrouding it in trees I would pick the architecture through the foliage, so that the picture would push itself up to your eye. I thought that was a much more real way of looking at things, because that is the way the eye looks: you are constantly looking through things, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time" (Doig, quoted in Ibid., p. 13).
This way of presenting the scene, through a thin mesh, is more authentic on one level, and yet highlights the artificiality of the entire act of combining planes, lines, drips and dashes in order to present a scene. Relating both to Munch and to the pictures of Paul Cézanne, Doig's Red House pushes questions about the nature of representation to the fore. The paint itself becomes an adventure, and this is made all the more dramatic, even epic, by the scale of the support. That sense of wilderness, that sense of adventure that is invoked by the Canadian theme is reflected in Doig's own painterly actions, in his movements as they are captured on the picture surface. "Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it," he explained. "[The size of paintings] is about the idea of getting absorbed into them, so you physically get lost" (Doig, quoted in Ibid., p. 33).