PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)

Swamped

Details
PETER DOIG (B. 1959)
Swamped
titled twice, inscribed and dated ‘SWAMP’ED ‘WHITENOISE’ SWAMP-ED APRIL-JUNE 90’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
77 ½ x 95 in. (197 x 241 cm.)
Painted in 1990.
Provenance
Private collection, London, acquired directly from the artist, 1990
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, London, 7 February 2002, lot 4
Private collection, Europe
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 11 May 2015, lot 5A
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Literature
G. Jones, "Weird places, Strange folk", frieze, no. 6, September/October 1992, p. 26
I. Kleijn, P. van den Bosch and F. Cohen, eds., Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, exh. cat., Maastricht, Bonnefanten Museum, 2003, pp. 19, 53 and 135 (illustrated).
P. Bonaventura, "Peter Doig: A Partial Record," Parkett, no. 67, May 2003, pp. 56 and 59 (illustrated).
A. Searle, K. Scot and C. Grenier, eds., Peter Doig, London, 2007, pp. 72-73, 79, 103 and 158 (illustrated).
R. Shiff and C. Lampert, eds., Peter Doig, New York, 2011, pp. 136, 296, 329 and 332 (illustrated).
J. O'Brian and P. White, eds., Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, Quebec, 2017, p. 5 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Kunsthalle zu Kiel; Kunsthalle Nürnberg and London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Peter Doig: Blizzard seventy-seven, June-August 1998, pp. 68, 78-79 and 133, no. 3 (illustrated and detail view illustrated).
Kunsthaus Glarus, Peter Doig - Version, April-June 1999, p. 47, no. 2 (illustrated).
London, Tate Britain; Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, Peter Doig, February 2008-January 2009, pp. 31, 51 and 156 (illustrated).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler and Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Peter Doig, November 2014-August 2015, no. 65 (illustrated and detail view illustrated on the exhibition poster, Basel).
Beijing, Faurschou Foundation, Cabins and Canoes: The Unreasonable Silence of the World, March-June 2017, pp. 21, 172-175, 177, 259 and 274 (illustrated and detail view illustrated on the front cover).
Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art, Peter Doig, February-October 2020.
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Lot Essay

A seminal work in Peter Doig’s oeuvre, and an icon of contemporary painting, Swamped is a masterpiece dating from the extraordinary early years of the artist’s practice. Painted in 1990, it offers an exquisite depiction of a moonlit lagoon, with a lone white canoe suspended upon its kaleidoscopic waters. A small wooden dwelling quivers silently amid rows of tall trees upon the bank, while a spectral figure lies dormant within the hull of the boat, a single arm trailing in the lake. A triumph of painterly bravura and near-cinematic tension, the work stands among Doig’s earliest depictions of the canoe, which—along with the cabin—would go on to become the defining motif of his practice. Based on a still from the 1980 cult horror film Friday the 13th, it fuses strains of romance, nostalgia and foreboding with echoes of art history, flickers of the artist’s own memories and abstract painterly techniques. Pigment, color, form, texture and narrative are held in spellbound flux, each poised—like the canoe—between reality and its reflection. Over the course of its lifetime, Swamped has taken center stage in major international presentations of Doig’s work, including touring retrospectives originating at the Kunsthalle zu Kiel (1998), Tate Britain, London (2008) and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel (2015), as well as solo exhibitions at the Faurschou Foundation, Beijing (2017) and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2020).

“I saw this scene and went out to the barn and made a painting of it that night … In fact it was the least horrifying moment of the film. It’s more like a romantic dream when you remove it from its context.”Peter Doig

Created shortly before Doig’s receipt of the prestigious Whitechapel Artist Prize, which led to his first major institutional exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London the following year, Swamped eloquently captures his arrival as a painter. It is a remarkable showcase of technical virtuosity, navigating the boundary between abstraction and figuration with seamless fluidity. For Doig, paint was a substance laced with instability: it was slippery, malleable and permeable, able to imitate, evoke and misdirect. Here, the artist draws out every inch of its potential, layering thick, gnarled impasto with fluid washes of pigment that veil the surface like membranes. Doig uses a palette knife to render both the ripples of the water and the texture of silver birch tree bark; elsewhere, paint is dripped and spattered in tangled webs, oscillating between tiny pointillist specks and large globs of transparent resin. In places it is smooth like velvet, imbued with an almost photographic sheen; elsewhere, it is stippled, grainy and tactile. As Adrian Searle has written, “the title refers as much to the paint itself—and to the variety of its handling and the quantity of touches with which Doig has built up the image … Swamped also swamps us, inducing in the viewer something like a sense of drowning in the indeterminacy of its details and layerings” (A. Searle, “A Kind of Blankness,” in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London, 2007, pp. 73, 79).

This close-knit dialogue between paint, subject and effect would become the driving force within Doig’s practice. Over the years, it would allow him to transform images of memories and daydreams into paintings whose surfaces dramatized the very workings of those phenomena. Born in Scotland, yet raised between Trinidad and Canada before moving to London, much of Doig’s practice is concerned with picturing the way in which images and places mutate within the recesses of our minds. Here, the idea of a swamp—a space in which matter and debris
accrues over long periods—speaks directly to this premise. On a literal level, Doig depicts the entanglement of nature: rafts of blanket-weed and half-submerged wooden stumps draw patterns in the water, while the reflections of the bank and trees seem to become part of the lake’s surface, hovering upon it like floating masses. In more abstract terms, Doig translates this coagulation into paint, creating a veritable swamp of color and texture: smooth passages of sanguine red, green and gold run in gentle waves through the water, while tiny blobs and flecks of pigment protrude from the surface, dissolving all sense of perspective. The inversion of the scene, meanwhile, creates an uncanny sense of disorientation, blurring the divide between the concrete and the illusory. Read together, these devices form a powerful expression of the way in which pictures and thoughts exist within our psyche, capturing the slippages, frictions, sinkings and surfacings that ultimately keep them alive.

Doig’s choice of source imagery is similarly “swamped” by layers of remove. For him, the painting represents the memory of a reverie: a recollection of a dream sequence contained within a film. While staying at his father’s house in Grafton, Ontario in 1987, the artist watched Sean S. Cunningham’s iconic slasher movie, and was particularly struck by the moment of stillness upon the lake before Jason Voorhees—the plot’s antagonist—leaps out of the water to grab his only survivor from the boat, dragging her into the icy waters. The girl, pictured here slumped in the canoe, wakes in hospital to find that the whole ordeal had simply been a dream. As Doig explains, “I saw this scene and went out to the barn and made a painting of it that night ... In fact it was the least horrifying moment of the film. It’s more like a romantic dream when you remove it from its context” (P. Doig, quoted in ibid., p. 70). The original painting—entitled Friday the 13th (1987)—was the first in a line of works that sprung from the scene: alongside Swamped, Doig painted White Canoe (1990-1991) and Ghost Canoe (1991), followed by Canoe Lake (1997-1998). He would depict a further related moment from the film, set on the water’s edge, in the 1998 painting Echo Lake (Tate, London).

“In Canada the canoe is an emotive kind of a national symbol ... An incredible symbol of freedom and movement and all that sadness that goes with it. The shape of it really fascinates me. It’s almost like the perfect form.”Peter Diog

Doig’s canoe, however, would drift further still. In his 100 Years Ago series, created at the turn of the millennium—a major example of which resides in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris—the vessel would become home to another ghostly inhabitant, staring directly out at the viewer. Throughout the 2000s, as he gradually returned to Trinidad, the image continued to recur in a variety of guises. Over the years it would come to represent something of a personal talisman: suspended upon water and unmoored from the shore, it was an object that—like the artist himself—was permanently adrift between worlds. For Doig, however, its implications ran even deeper, tapping into his sense of Canadian identity. “In Canada the canoe is an emotive kind of a national symbol,” he has explained. “... An incredible symbol of freedom and movement and all that sadness that goes with it” (P. Doig in conversation with U. Küster, in Peter Doig, exh. cat. Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2014, p. 13). The scene, indeed, is suffused with nostalgia and yearning: from the cabin that seems to conjure a sense of home amid the inky blackness of the forest, to the mysterious pale orb of the moon the peers through the trees, casting pools of light onto the surface of the lake. At the heart of the composition, the canoe is illuminated like a beacon, staking its claim at the center of the artist’s psyche.

Doig’s use of reflection would similarly come to occupy a central position in his practice. “The mirroring opened up another world,” he explained. “It went from being something like a recognizable reality to something more magical” (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, “A Suitable Distance,” in Peter Doig, exh. cat. Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 14). Swamped represents one of Doig’s earliest explorations of the device, and its execution remains among his most complex. The smooth curve of the canoe—a shape that the artist described as “almost like the perfect form”—is inverted with crystalline precision (P. Doig, ibid.). So too are the trees and shoreline, which seem to plummet into the water’s glassy depths. Beyond this, however, Doig disrupts the illusion of an exact parallel world. Across the composition, short wooden stumps interrupt the swamp, creating an ominous sense of unseen life below. Antecedent layers of paint, texture and color seem to rise up from the deep, spilling across one another like organic matter accumulating upon the surface. Foreground and background dissolve and entwine; surface and depth become one. Major works, including the 1993 paintings Blotter (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and Pond Life, as well as Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like) (1996) and Camp Forestia (1996), would build upon these discoveries, each using similar strategies to simulate the foggy prism of memory.

This process is amplified through Doig’s erudite dialogue with art history, which—like the reflection itself—spawns a web of allusion and déjà-vu. Swamped evokes a range of references: from the dazzling surfaces of Gustav Klimt, to Vincent van Gogh’s searing visions of the landscape and Paul Cézanne’s handling of pictorial space. Doig explained that, on viewing the original movie scene, he was “struck by its relationship to Munch,” citing “the plain beauty of this still amidst all the carnage” (P. Doig, interview with K. Scott, in A. Searle et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 10). He has also spoken of his admiration for Edward Hopper, whose paintings were similarly shrouded in a sense of cinematic unease: “[Hopper] not only suggests a particular scene,” he has explained, “but seems to summarize an entire film, in a very specific manner, and yet it divulges so little” (P. Doig, quoted in P. van den Bosch, “Charley’s Space,” in Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, exh. cat. Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2003, p. 15). Closer to home, perhaps, Doig was also aware of the Canadian Group of Seven: particularly Tom Thomson, whose atmospheric depictions of the northern Canadian wilderness linger in the present work’s sublime depths. Thomson’s tragic drowning in Canada’s Canoe Lake in 1917, notably, lends the comparison a note of haunting poignancy.

Throughout the work, these figurative sources are brought into dialogue with lessons from the history of abstraction. Such teachings are traceable back to Pierre Bonnard, who—claims Doig—“paints the space that is behind the eyes. It’s as if you were lying in bed trying hard to remember what something looked like … a memory space, but one which is based on reality” (P. Doig, interview with H-U. Obrist, in A. Searle et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 142). The Abstract Expressionists, too, loomed large in Doig’s imagination: from Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, conjured here in the drips and splashes that litter the work’s surface, to Barnett Newman, whose “zips” are evoked in the quivering trees that slice the composition into multiple ribbons. Indeed, Swamped is ultimately marshalled by a geometric framework, defined by the horizontal axis of the landscape’s reflection and the vertical incisions of the forest. Doig’s fluid handling of paint, however, serves to mask this armature, creating a surface that seems to slip in and out of any fixed position. In this, the work invites comparison with the squeegeed canvases of Gerhard Richter, whose complex marbled terrains similarly blurred the relationship between structure, texture, abstraction and reality.

“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. Or it doesn’t seem to be fixed. The colours continue to meld together, and react with each other. I think painters maybe look at oil paint in a very different way to people who don’t use it. Painters use oil paint kind of as a form of magic or alchemy.”Peter Doig

This ancestral remixing appeared at a pivotal moment in painting’s history. As the subversive, conceptual art of the YBAs gained traction in London, Doig embraced the volatile, unpredictable properties of oil on canvas. The previous decade, the Royal Academy of Arts had hosted the landmark exhibition A New Spirit in Painting, generating a newfound enthusiasm for the medium that was deeply influential to the art students of its day. In the period immediately before and after his graduation from Chelsea School of Art in 1990, Doig rode this wave to its height, producing major paintings—among them Iron Hill (1991), The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), Rosedale (1991) and his first Concrete Cabin works—that continue to be regarded as some of his finest achievements. At the center of this thrilling matrix stands Swamped, saturated to its core with the virtuosic euphoria of those early years. Paint, in Doig’s strange, oneiric land, becomes a tool for revelation. It shows us how we look at the past, and how we imagine the present; it allows us to glimpse the spaces between the worlds we know, and to revisit the places we thought we had lost. Swamped was—and remains—a song for a new generation, every inch of it alive with the rich, alchemical magic of paint.

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