Counted among the artist’s finest paintings of the 1990s, this work speaks directly to the act of art-making. Alastair Sooke discusses the 1996 masterpiece created during a pivotal period in Peter Doig’s practice
Against an inky forest, a cabin is reflected in a lake below. Its windows are dark, as if long abandoned; the scene is deserted, save for an almost imperceptible figure in the foreground. Camp Forestia (1996), offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 6 October at Christie’s in London, is a masterwork dating from a pivotal period in Peter Doig’s practice. Studies are held in the Tate, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
A native of Scotland, Doig spent five years in Trinidad before moving with his family to Canada. He would remain there for the next decade, before attending art school in London. It was in the early 1990s, as Doig’s star was rising on the international art scene, that his works began to evoke the lands of his youth.
Camp Forestia is ‘a fantastically strong and self-confident piece of painting,’ says art critic Alastair Sooke. ‘In the 1990s, Doig is often painting scenes that evoke memories of his Canadian childhood.’ But the paintings aren't really records of external scenes and places, Sooke explains. Instead they ‘articulate something internal; things that are impossible to put into words.’ The wild Canadian landscape — snow, forests, lakes — became a means by which to examine the sprawling wilderness of memory itself.
‘I don't think my paintings are about Trinidad or Canada,’ Doig has said. ‘They're about my idea of what that place is. The place is a kind of portal to possibilities in painting. The painting is what it becomes, and when I start, I don’t know what that will be. That's what makes the process so fascinating.’
The cabin quickly became a central motif in Doig's work. That structure, to which he returned again and again in his Concrete Cabin series, could conjure nostalgia, loneliness or unease; in Doig’s major early paintings, concealed homes induce an uneasy sense of trespassing on private property. ‘I have made relatively few straight landscapes that didn’t have any architecture, and I always wanted a landscape to be humanised by a person or a building,’ the artist explains.
For Doig, the material properties of paint approximate the sensation of remembering. It makes sense, then, that his artistic approach is grounded in the plasticity of paint itself: ‘Oil paint has a kind of melting quality, and I love the way that even when it’s dry it’s not really fixed.’
Doig frequently leaves his paintings dormant for long periods in his studio before returning to them later on. ‘If you leave a painting for a year it becomes extremely dry and absorbent and the next layer of paint reacts to that situation in a very different way,’ he explains.
Camp Forestia is a prime example of ‘Doig relishing the material properties of paint’, Sooke says. Here, for example, thinly applied paint in the background contrasts with the thick impasto used for the drifts of snow on the shoreline. ‘If you look at the cabin itself,’ the critic points out, ‘you can see strips of thick paint against thinner background paint, evoking the wood — the logs of the cabin itself.’
In Camp Forestia, Doig’s extraordinary command of his medium is brought to bear upon an image whose very themes — reflection, illumination, doubling — suggest the distortive effects of recollection.
Also present is a deliberate dialogue with art history. Doig’s division of the canvas planes suggests his admiration for the work of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The textures favoured by Gerhard Richter linger in its layered colours. The menace of Hopper and Munch combines with overtones of Cézanne, Courbet and others who depicted solitary lakeside fortresses.
‘My paintings are non-linguistic,’ Doig has said. ‘They can't be boiled down and defined in language.’ In his work, paint becomes memory; memory becomes paint. Tinged with traces of the artist’s past, Camp Forestia speaks directly to the act of art-making itself.