‘The mirroring opened up another world. It went from being something like a recognisable reality to something more magical’
‘I have made relatively few straight landscapes that didn’t have any architecture, and I always wanted a landscape to be humanized by a person or a building, at least something that suggests habitation … I started by painting a cabin, and then I moved up the line. I became more interested in what buildings represent. How in a very modest structure, did someone decide to place the windows? Often they seemed to be anthropomorphised’
A consummate masterwork dating from a pivotal period in Peter Doig’s practice, Camp Forestia (1996) dramatizes the haunting slippages of memory, reflection and dream. Against an inky, tangled forest dappled with starlight, a lone cabin glows in luminous bone white, mirrored in the glassy lake below. Its windows are dark as if long abandoned; the scene is deserted, save for a ghostly figure who hovers almost imperceptibly in the foreground. A strip of yellowing foliage, scratched, stabbed and scored with the end of a brush, bisects the picture plane horizontally. Thick globules of white impasto coat the grass like snow, momentarily positioning the work within the icy pine forests of Doig’s Canadian childhood. On either side, the spellbound cabin quivers like a weightless optical illusion, its walls streaked with individual slabs of paint. With studies held in both Tate, London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the work stands among the artist’s finest paintings of the 1990s. Based on an old photograph of a Seattle lake clubhouse – formerly known as ‘Camp Forestia’ – it transforms its black and white source image into a deeply atmospheric mise-en-scène. Beautiful and foreboding, it may be understood as something of a counterpart to the early masterpiece Swamped (1990): Doig’s first major exploration of mirrored surfaces. In this painting, inspired by the 1980 horror film Friday the 13th, a gleaming white canoe is reflected in the murky depths of the water below. In Camp Forestia, the cabin – a motif formerly buried in blizzards and forests – is unveiled in visionary, supernatural splendour, drenched in blinding light like an overexposed photograph. In its liquid reflection, we are plunged into the drifting space between past and present, figuration and abstraction, reality and imagination, nostalgia and fantasy – the matrix of memory, and indeed of image-making itself. A voyeuristic chill descends as if, by sleight of hand, we have lost our bearings and stumbled into the artist’s private realm.
Camp Forestia is, above all, a virtuosic essay in painterly texture. For Doig, who draws extensively upon his own experiences of displacement and geographic relocation, the material properties of paint serve to approximate the foggy, inarticulate sensation of remembering. Pigment, like memory, is pliable; it can blur, fade, dissipate, liquefy, merge and efface. In the present work, Doig’s extraordinary command of his medium is brought to bear upon an image whose very themes – reflection, illumination, doubling – relate directly to the distortive effects of recollection and déjà-vu. Stripped of its former screens, the floating white cabin embodies a profound shift in his handling of pigment. Much like the mirrored dwelling itself, the work fluctuates between two painterly worlds, combining the encrusted textures of Doig’s earlier oeuvre with thin, hallucinogenic washes that anticipate his later tropical paintings. The night sky is flooded with translucent veils of colour, layered, intercepted and overwritten with a hazy web of branches. The roof of the cabin, by contrast, is a pure sweep of thick white paint, spread like plaster with a palette knife. Impasto clings to the walls of the building in shimmering pastel tones, whilst the shrubbery blurs into a green miasma redolent of spray paint. The entire spectacle is imperfectly inverted below, reduced to a watery approximation in which salient details – the structure of the windows, the vertical pole on the roof – are deliberately omitted. As the two realms drift apart, others align. Stars become snowflakes; the texture of the cabin walls begins to resemble impacted ice. The grass, though coated in frost, is dry and arid as if baked by the heat of summer sun. References to Monet, Hopper and Munch combine with abstract textures reminiscent of Rothko and Pollock; paint, nature and history are held in a dreamlike state of flux. As the scene slips in and out of focus, we begin to question whether the figure is gazing at his reflection, or peering inside the shifting depths of his own psyche. Caught in the no-man's-land between reality and its mirror image, he stands – perhaps – as a projection of the artist himself.
CABIN, FOREST, LAKE
Having spent the first two years of his life in his native Scotland, and the following five in Trinidad, Doig was seven when he moved with his family to Canada. He would remain there for the next decade before relocating to art school in London. It was during the early 1990s, as Doig’s star was ascending on the international art scene, that his works became saturated with images that evoked the faraway land of his youth. ‘A lot of the paintings aren’t of Canadian subjects, but somehow they always end up looking Canadian – it’s strange’, he explains. ‘… 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. 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 advertising holidays in northern Canada. 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 & C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 131). Filtering his own recollections through generalised secondary imagery, Doig’s Canadian paintings were less depictions of specific locations than ways of re-enacting the mechanics of remembering. Through multiple screens – ranging from old photographs and advertisements to songs, films, personal reminiscences, art historical tropes, studies in different media, compound painterly textures, colours and layers – the vast, frozen landscape of Canada became a means through which to examine the sprawling wilderness of memory itself.
Within this context, the cabin quickly became established as a central motif. Though Canadian in spirit – frequently inspired by magazine adverts as well as houses he recalled from childhood – it was fundamentally a structure through which he could capture shifting psychological states. It could invoke human presence; it could conjure nostalgia, loneliness and unease; it could tower before the viewer like a hollow shell or recede into the distance like a lost thought. ‘I have made relatively few straight landscapes that didn’t have any architecture, and I always wanted a landscape to be humanized by a person or a building, at least something that suggests habitation’, he explains. ‘… I started by painting a cabin, and then I moved up the line. I became more interested in what buildings represent. How in a very modest structure, did someone decide to place the windows? Often they seemed to be anthropomorphised’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott and C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 16). In Doig’s major early works, concealed homes induce an uneasy sense of voyeurism – a feeling of trespassing upon private property. This atmosphere is magnified in the Concrete Cabins of 1991-98, based on Doig’s encounter with Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Briey-en-Forêt in Northern France. An abandoned temple of modernist aspiration, gleaming brightly through the trees, the building is both a welcoming, homely beacon and a dark, menacing presence, staring back at the viewer like a many-eyed skull. In Camp Forestia, this vision is lifted out of the forest and set ablaze before the viewer, infused with romance, mystery, terror and longing. Beneath the blue moon, it is simultaneously a near-spiritual, transcendental apparition and a nightmarish skeletal presence, its blackened shadows anthropomorphised as vacant eye sockets. Though charged with a wistful sense of homecoming, it is ultimately unheimlich: a distant mirage that the viewer can never hope to inhabit.
If Camp Forestia marks moment of breakthrough in Doig’s cabin paintings, it also represents a culmination of several other key Canadian-inspired themes. Throughout his early oeuvre, elemental features of the wild landscape – snow, forests, lakes – functioned as screens through which the artist sought to enact the shifting strata of memory, time and place. In works such as Charley’s Space (1991), Rosedale (1991) and Cobourg 3 + 1 More (1994), Brueghel-esque blizzards flicker like televisual static, confounding all sense of perspective. In The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), as well as the Concrete Cabins, dense thickets and sprawling webs of foliage invite the viewer to navigate their scrambled planes in search of the figurative reality beneath. It is in his mirrored compositions, however – set upon Canada’s vast bodies of water – that the artist arguably weaves his most personal narratives. In Swamped, image and reflection are almost inextricable; in Pond Life (1993), the skated arabesques on the frozen lake merge seamlessly with the swirling patterns of snow and branches above. In Reflection (What does your soul look like), painted the same year as Camp Forestia, the mirror image consumes the picture plane almost entirely. Contemplating this work, it becomes apparent that many of the artist’s painterly surfaces – even those staged upon dry land – could conceivably be construed as watery echoes: as reflections in and of themselves. For Doig, the distortive effects of mirroring are not only akin to the sensation of remembering, but to the fluid, incalculable process of painting. By refusing to work from the flesh, filtering his subjects through multiple screens, his world is inherently one of duplicity and deformation. The figures of Camp Forestia and Reflection – perhaps the same person – are not only soul-searchers, surveying the shape, texture, colour and feel of their own memories. They are painters, conjuring liquid echoes of reality through the force of their imagination.
FILM, FANTASY, DREAM
In 1987, whilst visiting his father in Grafton, Ontario, Doig watched Sean Cunningham’s iconic slasher film Friday the 13th for the first time. He was entranced by the scene in which Jason Voorhees leaps out of the lake to grab his only survivor from a canoe floating upon its placid surface. ‘I was struck by its relationship to Munch and also by the plain beauty of this still amidst all the carnage’, Doig explained (P. Doig, interview with K. Scott, in A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 10). That night he made a painting of the canoe and its lone inhabitant, titled after the film. Its imagery would recur throughout his oeuvre, most notably in an important trio of canvases created in the early 1990s – Swamped, White Canoe and Ghost Canoe – as well as Canoe Lake (1997) and Echo Lake (1998, Tate, London). For Doig, the talismanic, mirrored planes of these works related directly to the emotive ambiguity he distilled in the original scene – a complex interplay between idyll and nightmare. ‘In fact it was the least horrifying moment of the film’, he later asserted. ‘It’s more like a romantic dream when you remove it from its context’ (P. Doig, quoted in, A. Searle ‘A Kind of Blankness’, in A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 70). Despite its magical aura, a predatory sense of expectation lingers in the mire of paint, quivering like a paused film waiting to resume. ‘Horror movies and Peter Doig’s paintings’, writes Terry Myers: ‘films and canvases which suffuse manifestations of the landscape not with nostalgia, but with the terror of anticipation (or visa versa); celluloid and paint which capture and expose form and content in a graphic, visceral (desiccated to soaked) materiality’ (T. R. Myers, ‘Jumping the gun, better than dead: what’s next in Peter Doig’s paintings’, in Peter Doig: Blizzard Seventy-Seven, exh. cat., Kunsthalle zu Kiel, 1998, p. 65). In Friday the 13th, the girl in the canoe wakes in hospital to discover that the entire ordeal had only been a dream.
This play of doubles – in both painterly and atmospheric terms – finds renewed expression in Camp Forestia. A great aficionado of cinema, Doig is fascinated by film’s ability to capture the roving mechanisms of vision and perception – ‘the eye never sees a still’, he claims (P. Doig in conversation with R. Shiff, 2007, quoted in R. Schiff, ‘Incidents’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 39). In Swamped, a cabin sits on the horizon; in Camp Forestia, like a cut-and-spliced piece of footage, the camera appears to shift perspective, zooming in on the lonely lakeside dwelling. Illuminated by the same moonlit glare, and suspended in the same dreamlike, parallel universe, cabin and canoe are magically united under one spell. Time stands still in the gulf between them, as if we have simply picked up where the movie left off. There is a continuity, too, in the figure himself. Is he the same character who hovers on the edge of the canvas in Charley’s Space, almost out of shot? Does he stand on the frozen lake in Blotter (1993), peering at his own reflection? Does he linger on the shoreline in Jetty (1994), gazing out across the water? Does he lie in the grass in Daytime Astronomy (1998), positioned between earth and sky? Or is he, perhaps, the inhabitant of the floating canoe, caught in the twilight zone between waking, sleeping and dreaming? Drifting from canvas to canvas, he is the protagonist of a never-ending reel of film: an autobiographical projection, wandering through the wastelands, swamps and forests of memory.
PAINT, MEMORY, HISTORY
The cinematic relationship between Doig’s canvases owes much to his working method. His approach is grounded, first and foremost, in the plasticity of paint itself, spilling from canvas to canvas like a spreading ripple, a flooded plane or a panning shot. ‘Oil paint has a kind of melting quality, really, and I love the way that even when it’s dry it’s not really fixed’, he explains. ‘Or it doesn’t seem to be fixed. The colours continue to meld together, and react with each other … Painters use oil paint kind of as a form of magic or alchemy … how it takes on a different character when it goes bad, and the way that certain colours produce different kinds of dryness’ (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 2013, p. 193). Working in tandem with multiple studies, Doig allows these characteristics to emerge over extended periods, frequently leaving his paintings to lie dormant in his studio before returning to them at later intervals. ‘[T]he actual painting changes physically over time’, he elaborates. ‘It’s inherently unstable. The paint changes, so for instance, when you return to a painting, you’re painting on top of old paint, and that is different to painting on top of new paint. When you start a painting and then finish it all at once you keep the paint very wet. If you leave a painting for a year it becomes extremely dry and absorbent and then the next layer of paint reacts to that situation in a very different way’ (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 2013, pp. 191-192). In Camp Forestia, this drawn-out process allows paint to simulate the fossilised layers of memory. Pigment is imbued with its own history, heavy with residual traces and past formations.
Like looking at an old snapshot or re-watching home video footage, Doig’s paintings are thus tinged with an uncanny sense of déjà-vu – not only in terms of their subjects, but ultimately in terms of their own making. In the Concrete Cabins, Doig took this notion to a new extreme by consciously reproducing the splatters of paint that accumulated on his source images in the studio, creating thick floating globules that infused the paintings with a distant, archival quality. In Camp Forestia, the dense patches of snow-like impasto produce a similar sense of compound time, sitting on top of the canvas as if painted months or even years later. The layers below flicker like buried remains, creating a powerful archaeological tension between surface and depth. Woven into this geological terrain is a deliberate dialogue with art history: a further set of screens that confound our temporal bearings. Doig’s admiration for Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko is evident in the work’s abstract planar divisions: three horizontal bands, juxtaposed with a chorus of filigree vertical lines. Hints of Gerhard Richter’s squeegeed textures linger in its palimpsests of colour, which collide and mingle in myriad formations. The atmospheric menace of Hopper and Munch is combined with historic overtones of Cézanne, Courbet and other artists who depicted solitary lakeside fortresses. The deliquescent lighting effects of Bonnard and Monet are juxtaposed with lurid tones that return the viewer to the plasmic world of horror movies. Doig once described his practice as ‘taking pictures with van Gogh film in the camera’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Saltz, Seeing Out Loud: The Village Voice Arts Columns, Fall 1998-Winter 2003, Berkeley 2003, p. 303). In the earthbound blue-green palette of Camp Forestia, illuminated by dazzling flashes of white and yellow, is it possible to detect a haunted echo of the Dutch master’s starry nights?
‘My paintings [are] a way of looking at the world, not through the eyes of a painter, but through the eyes of painting’, explains Doig. ‘It [is] about looking at the world with the knowledge of a lot of painting’ (P. Doig, quoted in R. Enright, ‘The Eye of the Painter: An Interview with Peter Doig’, Border Crossings, Issue 98, June 2006, http:// bordercrossingsmag.com/article/the-eye-of-the-painting-an-interviewwith- peter-doig [accessed 12 August 2017]). Perhaps, ultimately, Camp Forestia may be seen as a metaphor for a painterly practice grounded in the very concept of mirroring. In Doig’s works, personal experience, art history and physical layers of pigment pearl into fractured echoes of one another. Paint becomes landscape; memory becomes texture; the canvas becomes a parallel world tinged with traces of the artist’s own past. Beneath the glow of the moon, image and double are brought onto a single floating plane. In liberating the cabin from its former screens, Doig reveals that this enigmatic motif was only ever an illusion: an elusive spectre, eternally suspended in another realm. In the confluence of reality and its reflection, Camp Forestia speaks directly to the act of art-making itself.