‘I think the paintings always refer back to a reality that we all have experience of. .We’ve all experienced the sensation of light dropping and producing strange natural effects, and I think in a way I am using these natural phenomena and amplifying them through the materiality of paint and the activity of painting … When I was making the “snow” paintings I was looking a lot at Monet, where there is this incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour’ —P. DOIG
‘What Doig discovered in this very short period of time was that paint is like mud and can be drawn out into 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, like a sudden cough or wind-whipped sleet … It can be as heavy and sodden as wet hair, or as immaterial as a reflection in ice, or fog on the breath’ —A. SEARLE
‘[Doig’s snow] induces introspection, as if, through it, you were remembering yourself, looking into your soul’ —R. SHIFF
‘When you look at [Bruegel’s painting] the snow is almost all the same size, it’s not perspectival, it’s this notion of the “idea” of snow, which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it’ —P. DOIG
‘… snow somehow has this effect of drawing you inwards’ —P. DOIG
‘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’ —P. DOIG
‘People occupy his landscapes, only to be rendered indistinct by atmosphere that takes a more material form than the figures (the falling snow in Cobourg 3 + 1 more)’ —R. SHIFF
‘Journeys 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. There’s a slippage, too, in the surface of his paintings. A painting can be layered in the same way that a view or a story has layers’ —A. SEARLE
A visionary apparition rendered on a majestic scale, Cobourg 3 + 1 More is a masterpiece of technical virtuosity that stands among the great icons of Peter Doig’s early oeuvre. Through incandescent layers of snow and mist, the artist conjures a distant, half-remembered reality: a moment suspended within the oneiric drift of his psyche. Beneath a shimmering membrane of scattered pigment, sprayed and splattered like rain upon a window, a hallucinogenic, filmic panorama hovers in and out of focus. Suffused with light and movement, animated to the point of incoherence, a deliquescent spectrum of colours saturates the canvas, refracted and reflected in kaleidoscopic, prismatic splendour. At times thick with impasto, at others reduced to a powdered miasma, Doig’s itinerant painterly surface vividly dramatizes the wanderings of memory. Painted in London in 1994 – a pivotal year that saw the production of some of his finest canvases – it is a sublime apotheosis of his early practice, situated at the pinnacle of his most significant body of work. Alongside Ski Jacket (Tate, London) and Pond Life – both included in his Turner Prize exhibition that year – as well as Blotter (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), it marks the grand culmination of the artist’s meditations on the snow-filled landscapes of his Canadian youth. Beneath iridescent veils of texture, Doig depicts four figures – including flickering traces of himself and his brother – standing on the shore of a frozen lake in Cobourg, where he grew up. As the blizzard subsumes their forms, all sense of perspective is confounded: foreground and background dissolve into a near-cinematic expanse of abstraction, marshalled by an underlying grid of horizontal bands and cascading vertical lines. A centrepiece of Doig’s major touring retrospectives at Tate, London (2008) and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel (2015), the work represents a tour de force of the diverse influences that nourished his unique painterly aesthetic, filtering, splicing and recombining the languages of Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter, Pieter Bruegel, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Pierre Bonnard. It is a mesmeric synthesis of painterly, personal and art-historical narratives, re-enacting the slippages of reverie and daydream within its luminous depths.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING THROUGH: DOIG’S VISUAL SCREENS
For Doig, the act of looking back is intrinsically bound up with the act of looking through. Though much of his work draws inspiration from his own past, he is less interested in specific recollections than in the mechanics of memory itself. Raised between Scotland, Trinidad and Canada before settling at art school in London during the 1980s, his enigmatic, fractured pictorial surfaces are deeply informed by his own experience of geographical displacement. Working from photographs, fragments of film and his own mental archive, he attempts to capture the inarticulate, neuronal sensation of remembering – its half-lucid, semi-conscious undulations, its uncertainties and distortions. It was during the early 1990s that the act of looking through became fully established as a compositional device in Doig’s work, founded on the artist’s belief that ‘the eye never sees a still’. In Charley’s Space and Rosedale – significant precursors to Cobourg 3 + 1 More – we are invited to peer through a flurry of snowflakes to the rigid architectural structures beneath. In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, made in the wake of his breakthrough exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, a dense tangle of frost-lined branches obscures an isolated house. By 1994, propelled onto a new international stage by his Turner Prize nomination, Doig was already absorbed in his celebrated series of Concrete Cabin paintings, in which the notion of looking through took on a new level of complexity. In many of these works, the viewer’s gaze is interrupted not only by a cacophony of branches and leaves, but also by thick, abstract globules of pigment that replicate the paint-splattered surface of his source photographs. As the eye attempts to navigate these schisms, ruptures and layers, a strange sense of déjà-vu takes hold: a feeling of wandering through fog, of losing one’s bearings, of grasping for a memory just out of reach.
The present work is situated at the apex of these explorations. Unlike its two later, smaller-scale studies, in which falling snow is sparse, Cobourg 3 + 1 More presents a blizzard of unprecedented grandeur. Physically throwing handfuls of pigment at the canvas, Doig creates the ultimate screen: a strange, holographic space in which medium and subject – paint and snow – become one. At times it is thick and impenetrable, like drifting ice-floes upon a thawing river; elsewhere, it hovers like liquid or dissolves into an ethereal haze. Like a reflection in a lake, a long camera exposure or a film paused on rewind, the scene is shrouded in instability – a split-second of a motion picture captured in transition. Doig was entranced by snow less as an elemental feature of the Canadian landscape, but rather as a kind of smoke-and-mirrors device – a metaphor for obfuscation and interruption. He has spoken in this regard of his admiration for Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow: ‘When you look at [Bruegel’s painting]’, he explains, ‘the snow is almost all the same size, it’s not perspectival, it’s this notion of the “idea” of snow, which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it’. As an artist deeply fascinated by moving images, Doig felt that Bruegel had anticipated the so-called ‘snow’ that flickers across television screens in moments of electronic interference: it ‘keeps you back [yet] looking through and into [the] picture within’, he explains (P. Doig, quoted in L. Edelstein, ‘Peter Doig: Losing Oneself in the Looking’, in Flash Art, Vol. 31, May-June 1998, p. 86). In Cobourg 3 + 1 More, Doig creates a volatile surface that, as Richard Shiff has written, ‘induces introspection, as if, through it, you were remembering yourself, looking into your soul’ (R. Shiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 30).
BETWEEN FIGURATION AND ABSTRACTION: DOIG’S DIALOGUE WITH THE MASTERS
The uncanny sense of déjà-vu in Cobourg 3 + 1 More is magnified by Doig’s erudite dialogue with art history. The work represents a complex homage to his great artistic forebears, knitted together to form a unique vocabulary that is entirely his own. More than any other work in his oeuvre, the painting bears witness to his fascination with Claude Monet’s study of winter light: spellbound visions of frozen beauty, punctuated by revolutionary prismatic effects. ‘I often use heightened colours to create a sense of the experience or mood or feeling of being there, but it’s not a scientific process’, Doig explains. ‘I think the paintings always refer back to a reality that we all have experience of … We’ve all experienced the sensation of light dropping and producing strange natural effects, and I think in a way I am using these natural phenomena and amplifying them through the materiality of paint and the activity of painting … When I was making the “snow” paintings I was looking a lot at Monet, where there is this incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 132). As we peer beneath the frosted surface of the painting, a psychedelic array of colours bleeds across the picture plane: a veritable aurora borealis, evoking both the hallowed glow of twilight and the chromatic splendour of dawn. Like Pierre Bonnard, whom Doig claimed to have succeeded in ‘painting the space behind the eyes’, the artist mirrors the shifting residues of light that play on the inside of closed eyelids. In doing so, he invokes the transitory half-way state between waking and sleeping – between day and night, winter and spring – that lies at the heart of his practice.
At the same time, Cobourg 3 + 1 More demonstrates the depth of Doig’s engagement with the legacy of abstraction. Beneath the Pollock-esque furore of action painting that covers the surface, Doig crafts an architectonic structure reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s ‘zip’ paintings: a decisive influence on the artist during his formative years. Against the three horizontal planar divisions of the canvas – a structure that runs like a golden thread throughout Doig’s practice – a forest of vertical lines springs up on the horizon, splintering the canvas into infinite shards. In counterpoint with this underlying geometry, Doig’s reverberant chromatic strata echo the quivering colour fields of Mark Rothko, unfurling and mingling across the canvas as if on a single continuum. As textures and patterns resolve, only to be fractured again by the intrusion of snow, we are reminded of Gerhard Richter, whose squeegeed palimpsests of colour are mirrored in Doig’s transcendent chromatic eddies. Like Richter, who had completed his celebrated cycle of Eis (Ice) paintings just a few years previously, Doig’s composition sits on the knife-edge between abstraction and figuration: a liberated zone of painterly and psychological power. ‘There is something quite primal about painting’, Doig has written. ‘… [My paintings] are totally non-linguistic. There is no textual support to what you are seeing. Often I am trying to create a “numbness”. I am trying to create something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 125).
RECURRING DREAMS: DOIG’S CANADIAN REVERIES
Doig’s images are fundamentally products of the distance engendered by time and place. Like Francis Bacon – a significant influence on his early practice – he found it was only by consciously removing himself from his subjects that he was able to translate their forms into paint. The works created in London during the 1990s were the first in his oeuvre to successfully transmit sensory recollections onto canvas, tinged with longing, desire and wistful strains of yearning. ‘During the time that I returned to Canada I tried to make a painting of the landscape en plein air, and I found it impossible to have either a focus or distance on that image’, Doig explained. ‘I was much more comfortable with looking at something on a page, as a way to contain the image. On my return I would go to Canada House in London and look through the brochures ... And I discovered a whole set of images that refer to this almost dream-like notion of what these places are actually like’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier (eds.) Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 131). Cobourg 3 + 1 More is among the richest repositories of this research, featuring motifs that recur like beacons throughout Doig’s early work. Is this the same body of water that glistens in Reflection (What does your soul look like)? Is that the forest that looms before the protagonists of Figures in Trees, or the same snowstorm that rages in Pink Snow, White Out and Window Pane? Is it the same frozen lake upon which Doig’s brother stood in Blotter? And is the surface, perhaps, not simply a blizzard, but a projection of the hallucinogenic experience that Doig claims to have recorded in that very painting?
It is in questions such as these that Cobourg 3 + 1 More ultimately finds its meaning. The physical slippages of its surface relate directly to the slippages of consciousness that arise from temporal and geographical dislocation. Its vivid dramatisation of art history and painterly technique is simultaneously a reservoir of psychological sensation and mental nuance. Suspended in a world of reflection and obscurity – a world on the brink of total white-out – Doig’s landscape is not only a projection of his past, but also a metaphor for the incalculable, indefinable act of looking inside one’s own head; of attempting to glimpse the ‘space behind the eyes’. In attempting to map the ineffable territories of the mind, Cobourg 3 + 1 More performs an impossible sleight of hand: a slip of the imagination and a trick of the light, in which paint and memory become one.