First Look: Peter Doig’s Charley’s Space and Snowballed Boy

Executed in the early 1990s, these works — offered in London on 6 March — realise Doig’s concern with how ‘one fictionalises actual experience’. Katharine Arnold, Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art, illuminates a blizzard of memories

The Scottish-born artist Peter Doig moved with his family to Canada — from Trinidad — when he was seven years old, where the vast white winter landscapes made an immediate and lasting impression on him. After moving to London at the age of 19 to attend art school, he began transposing his memories of his adolescent, snow-infused years onto canvas.

Canada loomed large in Doig’s imagination at this time, yet not merely as the repository for a set of personal memories. ‘Canada came to embody the idea of looking back: the sensation of being caught between worlds, real and remembered,’ says Katharine Arnold, Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in London.

In taking up archetypal images of the country’s landscape, Doig sought to distance himself from its specifics. These were not paintings of Canada in a literal sense, but rather explorations of the process of memory. For Doig, snow was not simply a souvenir of his childhood, but a conceptual device that could simulate the way our memories may be transformed and distorted over time.

Begun in 1990, during his final year at London’s Chelsea School of Art, Charley’s Space  is the earliest of the celebrated snow scenes that would define Doig’s output in the ensuing decade. In it, a lone house on the horizon and a ghostly figure in the margin are blurred in a blizzard of snow. The execution of this work prompted a realisation that would fuel Doig’s practice thenceforth: that every viewer finds his or her own space within a painting, guided by their recollections and experiences. 

The circle at the heart of the composition was initially inspired by the opening scene of the 1941 film Citizen Kane, one of the most famous flashbacks in cinematic history. Doig has long been fascinated by film and theatre, and the circle is full of dramatic allusions. At times it conjures a spotlight; at others it hovers like a searchlight, evoking the world of mystery and film noir. From certain angles, it suggests a zoom device: a camera, telescope or binocular lens, placing us in the position of voyeur. The snowflakes, meanwhile, ‘are both figurative and abstract’, says Katharine Arnold.

In 2004, Charley’s Space  became the centrepiece of Doig’s touring exhibition at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.

Painted four years later — one year after Doig participated in the Turner Prize exhibition — Snowballed Boy  depicts a lone figure, his face obscured by a splatter of white paint. A vertical fringed fence bisects the scene horizontally, in counterpoint to the tangle of trees beyond. ‘It is about the fumbling and awkwardness when learning to ski, how when you start skiing you slip all over the place, yet over a period of time you learn to cope and eventually manage to ski,’ Doig explained in a 2001 interview. ‘I think painting is a bit like that. It takes time to actually take control of the greasy stuff.’

The work marks a pivotal shift in the artist’s practice, as he began to move away from the dense surfaces of his earlier career and towards lighter surfaces and translucent backdrops.

‘He painted the surfaces of his pictures with smooth, weightless grounds,’ Katharine Arnold explains, ‘creating a veil of texture that quivers like frost on a window pane.’

Charley’s Space  and Snowballed Boy  are offered on 6 March in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London. The works come to Christie’s from the Donald R. Sobey Foundation, which is selling the paintings for the benefit of young Canadian artists.