Peter Doig’s Boiler House: a meditation on memory, decay and displacement

Doig’s 1993 painting Boiler House, offered in London on 22 October, stands apart in his seminal ‘Concrete Cabins’ series

In 1991, the Scottish artist Peter Doig (b. 1959) visited Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in northeast France, a utopian housing project that had opened in 1961 in Briey-en-Fôret, then been abandoned.

To Doig, the project was a temple of hope laid to ruin, and the nine large-scale canvases it inspired — Doig’s seminal ‘Concrete Cabins’ series, the largest and most distinctive cycle in Doig’s oeuvre — became a meditation on the decay of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision of social cohesion.

Boiler House  was first exhibited in Salzburg after Doig had won the Eliette von Karajan prize in 1994, and was included in Doig’s 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain.

It stands alone within the cycle, an isolated building in the forest. Depicting the building designed to house the estate’s coal boiler, it is rendered in fluid trails of impasto, and carries a stark anthropomorphic charge, the angular geometries looming large through a screen of trees, shifting in and out of focus like a memory or fragments from a movie reel.

Peter Doig (b. 1959), Boiler House, 1993. Oil on canvas. 78¾ x 108¼ in (200 x 275 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 22 October at Christie’s in London
Peter Doig (b. 1959), Boiler House, 1993. Oil on canvas. 78¾ x 108¼ in (200 x 275 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 22 October at Christie’s in London

‘I would pick the architecture through the foliage, so that the picture would push itself up to your eye,’ explained Doig. ‘You are constantly looking through, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time.’

Vacancy and voyeurism

The lonely, isolated cabin has long been a central motif for Doig, fusing together what he has described as a sense of ‘homeliness’ with an uncanny feeling of vacancy and voyeurism.

In early works such as Charley’s Space, Rosedale and Road Houseall of which date from 1991his buildings were imbued with nostalgia, evoking the Canadian dwellings of his childhood.

Raised between Scotland, Trinidad and Canada before leaving for art school in London, the artist is also fascinated by the threads of memory and displacement.

‘The space behind the eyes’

The dissolution of traditional figure-ground relations in Boiler House invites comparison with the squeegeed canvases of Gerhard Richter, which Doig is likely to have encountered during the artist’s touring retrospective of 1993.

At the same time, the geometric splicing of the surface recalls Doig’s interest in the work of artists such as Barnett Newman and Piet Mondrian, who also exerted a profound influence on Le Corbusier.

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It is in the elision of these various layers — the painterly, the personal and the historical, ‘the space that is behind the eyes’, as Doig put it — that the work ultimately finds its meaning. Boiler House  is a thesis on the way we process time and place, simultaneously absorbing, confounding and reflecting our own gaze.