Towering above the viewer in hallucinogenic splendor, Peter Doig’s Olin MK IV Part 2 offers a monumental vision of gravity-defying euphoria. Suspended mid-air above a crowd of spectators, a skier takes flight in a burst of adrenalin-fuelled ecstasy. A sparkling flurry of powdered pigment erupts in his wake, glittering like snowflakes against a vast expanse of crystal blue sky. Executed between 1995 and 1996, the work marks a moment of breakthrough in the development of Doig’s artistic language. The thick, encrusted landscapes of his previous oeuvre, heaving with tangled memories of his Canadian childhood, gave way to weightless, airborne apparitions that are shrouded in thin painterly miasmas and translucent veils of color. Following on from his 1994 masterpiece Ski Jacket (Tate, London), included in his pivotal Turner Prize exhibition that year, the present work and its companion Olin MK IV were the first statements of this new approach. Taking its title from a brand of skis popular during his youth, the work transforms source imagery and personal recollections into a piece of technicolor theatre, played out upon soaring, shimmering chromatic planes. Though bathed in frosted winter light, its highly-keyed tonalities anticipate the glimmering heat waves of his later Trinidadian works. Channeling the transcendental color fields of Abstract Expressionism, Doig divides his canvas into three quivering bands. The ground is brushed lucid green, as if hardened by impacted ice; the middle distance, glistening with freshly-fallen snow, is picked out in exquisite painterly detail, bracketed by a bristling black fence and fringe of bare, holographic trees. The sky, by contrast, unfolds in barely-visible atmospheric layers, dusted with scattered flecks of white pigment. Seamlessly fusing subject and technique, the skier’s exhilarating leap of faith is ultimately a metaphor for Doig’s own painterly liberation: “In an instant that is like an initiation, he suddenly becomes aware that anything is possible,” writes Eva Schmidt. “When he comes down to earth, nothing will ever be the same again” (E. Schmidt, Peter Doig: Homely, exh. cat., Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, 1996, p. 29).
Raised between Scotland, Canada and Trinidad—where he now lives permanently—Doig is fascinated by the mechanics of memory and displacement. The works produced in London during the 1990s are caught between retrospective nostalgia for the snow-filled landscapes of his youth, and a longing for the balmy Caribbean shores that flickered in and out of his subconscious. During the early part of the decade, Doig had attempted to capture these mental processes through dense painterly screens, refracting his subjects through twisted branches, raging blizzards and glassy lakes. Impenetrable strata of pigment re-enacted the slippages engendered by time and distance: content and execution were hermetically entwined. “When I made the first skiing paintings, they were made as a reaction to things I had made previously, paintings with a proliferation of matter on the surface of the canvas,” Doig explains. “I had wanted to get away from that device of always ‘looking through,’ whether it be trees, branches or snow – into the painting. It could have become manneristic. I wanted to make things more open” (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier, Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 14). The Olin MK IV paintings were the first works in which, as he put it, “there was no screening;” his friend Chris Ofili describes them as “quite thin, almost airbrushed” (C. Ofili and P. Doig, quoted in L. Wainwright, “Peter Doig & Chris Ofili,” BOMB 101, Fall 2007). Doig’s soaring skiers dramatized this new sense of freedom; the forests, swamps and snowstorms that had previously haunted his psyche gave way to clear mountain air, wide-open slopes and infinite, bare horizons. Where pigment had formerly coalesced into shards of bark and ice, it now dissipated into liquid rivers, thin layers and delicate powdered flakes.
As the artist has suggested in relation to Ski Jacket, his depictions of winter sports may be seen to function as metaphors for the process of painting. “It is about the fumbling and awkwardness when learning to ski, how when you start skiing you slip all over the place, yet over a period of time you learn to cope and eventually manage to ski,” he has explained. “Ski Jacket depicts beginner skiers. If you look very carefully you can see that they are all groping to stay on their feet, they are in very awkward positions, and whilst there are other things going on in that painting, that sense of awkwardness was one of the things that attracted me to that image. And I think painting is a bit like that. It takes time to actually take control of the greasy stuff, paint” (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2001, p. 20). In the present work, the skier’s smooth glide into the void reflects the newfound fluidity of Doig’s technique. In the pure, unhindered textures of its surface, influences latent in the artist’s earlier practice begin to assert themselves with greater clarity. In certain lights, the tripartite division of the canvas evokes the vast luminous color fields of Mark Rothko. On the opposite end of the art-historical spectrum, the work’s sprinkling of snow-like pigment reaffirms his fascination with the work of Pieter Bruegel. For Doig, Bruegel’s snow functioned as a kind of smoke-and-mirrors device: a screen that forced the viewer to navigate its depths. Here, however, we peer through the mist only to realise there is nothing but emptiness beyond. Whilst Doig’s illusory tricks had previously relied on thick palimpsests of paint, here they are performed with deft sleight of hand and slick economy of means.
Whilst the present work’s appropriation of Canadian-themed source imagery situates it firmly within Doig’s early oeuvre, it also marks the beginning of an aesthetic trajectory that would come to fruition in his Trinidadian paintings of the 2000s. By thinning the consistency of his pigment and amplifying its tonality, he anticipates the diaphanous skeins of vivid color that would come to define his early tropical works—most notably the 100 Years Ago paintings. Despite its evocation of crisp altitude, the saturated intensity of the present work’s palette radiates an almost palpable sense of heat. Doig has spoken of his fascination with “the way that you perceive things when you are in the mountains—for example, when you are feeling warm in an otherwise cold environment, and how the light is often extreme” (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2001, p. 20). Raised between tundra and tropics, this convergence of hot and cold climates was deeply engrained in Doig’s psyche. In works such as Daytime Astronomy (created shortly after the Olin MK IV paintings), the artist creates a surreal collision of seasons, combining luscious grass and bright flowers with specks of ice and glacial, northern light. In the present work, streaks of verdant, spring-like green coexist with frosted tones of white and blue. Towards the top of the canvas, the sky begins to darken, approaching the shimmering sapphire hue of Doig’s later sun-drenched oceans. In a sudden twist, we momentarily wonder whether we are gazing at a watery reflection, or looking up at a star-studded evening sky. Drifting through the air with the same cinematic timelessness as his iconic canoes, the skier enters an uncanny twilight zone: a half-way territory between summer and winter, night and day, levitating and falling. Though the painting marks a fundamental shift in Doig’s technique, it remains firmly rooted in the strange, inarticulate no-man’s land that lies at the heart of his practice.