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Post Lot Text
Executed on a vast, immersive scale, Pine House (Rooms for Rent), painted in 1994, represents one of Peter Doig’s most important works. Glanced at as if passing by the roadside, a disused burnt-out rooming house is bathed in a gorgeous wintry light. The road upon which the viewer stands is a frost-covered rural track, formed of a kaleidoscopic haze of tiny specks of icy blue and violet paint, like constellations of accumulated oils, mirrored in the sky beyond alight with the aurora borealis. Painted in 1994, the same year the artist was nominated for the Turner Prize and won the first prize in the Prix Eliette von Karajan, works from this year are now widely considered the best of his career, such as Ski Jacket, 1994, Tate Modern, London’ Boiler House, 1994, promised to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Corn Cob, 1994, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Critically, the pictorial devices explored here, such as the house seen through the veil of bare branches, shows the origins of the ideas explored in the renowned series of Cabin paintings, which would be exhibited later in the year in London.
Chanced upon by Doig some years earlier, the house’s later transformation into a set of new condominiums encouraged Doig to paint an ode to its existence and build an imaginary narrative through a set of three paintings which would come to define his oeuvre. Indeed, Doig recalls personally selecting Pine House (Rooms for Rent) alongside Jetty to feature as centerpieces of his first solo exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York City in 1994. A triumvirate of works, Pine House (Rooms for Rent), Jetty and Corn Cob encompass a narrative and painterly complexity that represented the artist at the peak of his powers.
Inspired by the romantic optimism promised in an idealistic picture postcard, Pine House remains the only painting realized of this distinctive source image. As Judith Nesbitt describes in the catalogues for the artist’s 2008 retrospective at Tate, London, Doig himself imagined “[Jetty] as a kind of postcard image that one of the residents in Pine House might have pinned to his bedroom wall, a picture to be gazed at before drifting into sleep” (J. Nesbitt, “A Suitable Distance,” J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 12). Discussing this relationship, Doig explained that he had imagined the resident to be the figure in one of his source photographs who appears in several works, including the adapted self-portrait, Corn Cob. (A. Searle, quoted in Unbound: Possibilities in Painting, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1994, p. 30). In this way, the three paintings form a deliberately loose, personalized narrative thread, one immortalized in the vignettes of each shown, alongside a few other motifs, in his 1996 oil on board, Drifter. And in evoking the trials and tribulations of this drifter, who therefore appears directly and indirectly in several of Doig’s works, the artist may be introducing a form of self-portrait, a substitute figure through which to channel some of his own experiences. As Nesbitt elaborates: “Intellectual uncertainty, ambivalence and contradiction are directions often taken in Doig’s paintings and embodied in their make-up. Pine House (Rooms for Rent) 1994 was a house for transient workers that Doig photographed following a bad fire; returning a few years later, he found it had been replaced by a new set of condominiums, which prompted him to paint the picture. A ramrod tree trunk slices the upper half of the picture in two and skeins of paint cut into the surface like barbed wire. Apparition and negation are dynamically related in the formation of these paintings” (J. Nesbitt, “A Suitable Distance” in J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 12).
The undertow of uncertainty already at play in the scene is amplified by the loose reflection of the trees in the foreground, space that presents with equal plausibility a slicked roadway, an unfathomable watery depth and an abstracted abyss of psychological mood. This motif is an early harbinger of the doubling or reflecting quality that would go on to become a celebrated compositional element in many of Doig’s most important works. This theme is indicative of a larger preoccupation for the artist with transience, journeying and drifting, notions that recur time and again in his oeuvre. As an early work in Doig’s practice, Pine House (Rooms for Rent) implies a world that continues beyond the boundaries of the canvas, a place that can be reached only in the mind and through the eye.
As is the case in the greatest of Doig’s paintings, Pine House appears as a fragment from an unknown yet eerily familiar narrative, a film still from a movie whose plot we cannot quite recall, an abandoned family photo. That sense of displacement and abandonment is central to Doig’s own thoughts on this picture: the house shown in Pine House, while deliberately recalling Edvard Munch’s Red Virginia Creeper, was one with which Doig himself was familiar in reality. Munch is an ever-present reference in Doig’s work, along with Klimt, and both artists were masters of painterly “atmosphere.” With the grand scale and extraordinary variety of mark-making and imagery, Doig has taken their ideas a few stages further. While Pine House (Rooms for Rent) exhibits Doig’s ability to draw upon a wealth of art historical-references, such as Barnett Newman, Edvard Munch, Caspar David Friedrich and David Milne, they are brought together through his own unique vocabulary of color, texture and form.
The dazzlingly rich painted surface absorbs the viewer, pulling us towards the sensuous, rich and varied textures of paint while also immersing us in the illusory world that he has created on the canvas. Doig evocatively renders the feeling of the house both through motif and the dazzling variety of techniques that the artist has used. Beginning with delicate veiling of opaque color that forms the painting’s underlayer, Doig builds the composition with lightly stippled roadside grass that recalls David Hockney, over which Pollock-like dripping and splashing are expertly applied to create the icy road surface and the late evening sky. Moving across the canvas, the ghost-like passage of delicate drawing to the left side of the house give way to the extraordinarily bold and spiky tree stripped of its leaves, which obscures the building. From there, intricate, thick passages of white paint cohere to produce an exacting, near photo-realist fir tree, which part covers the peak of the right side of the house.
Created in the midst of an urban art movement defined by the cool, detached Conceptual art of the young British artists, here was a Scottish-born artist who had spent his early life in rural Canada. Standing in contrast to his YBA contemporaries whose practice was ensconced in post-Minimalist and Conceptual rhetoric, Doig distinguished himself as a painters’ painter, but one whose practice is informed by the post -modern discourse of his generation, speaking to the tradition of Conceptualism, appropriation art and Neo-Expressionism. In the early 1990s, Doig honed his own unique painting technique, taking inspiration from memory, postcards, magazines, films and photos snapped from television, before dramatically reworking the images through his unique painterly process. Working intuitively from his archive of sources, Doig builds up his paint in layers, the unexpected developments of the paint skimming across the surface create a totally unique derivation of the source. The unpredictable nature of this process allows the artist to work spontaneously, evaluating the composition after each layer, allowing the elaborate designs to grow organically, its complex imagery emerging from the super imposed motifs. Extending beyond this initial point of inspiration, Doig’s treatment of the image extrapolates it from its source—omitting and adding features, fundamentally altering the landscape. As the artist explains: “I think the way that the paintings come out is more a way of trying to depict an image that is not about reality, but one that is somehow in between the actuality of a scene and something that is in your head” (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Charley’s Space, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2003, p. 18). In doing so, Doig reinvented one of the most anachronistic of artistic genres—the landscape—revivified for the contemporary age.
This large-scale monument to the now-vanished house in Cobourg hints at the fading of old ways and old days, yet Doig himself has emphasized his distance from nostalgia per se, not least in his Canadian-themed pictures. These, which had really begun on Doig’s return to Britain when he was away from the motifs, were often based on his own photographs or on leaflets taken from London’s Canada House, yet it is not homesickness that they conjure. As the artist explains, “For the most part I tried to avoid becoming involved in nostalgia, and that’s why a lot of the imagery I used for these paintings were things that reminded me of my experience rather than things that were directly from my experience” (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott & C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 10).
It was only through absence that he began to discover that, regardless of his chosen theme, his adopted “home” was invading his pictures. As Doig describes, “A lot of the paintings aren’t of Canadian subjects, but somehow they always end up looking Canadian—it’s strange. I’m aware that I can’t get away from Canada, because my formative years were spent there. 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 advertizing 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, images that described an almost idealized idea of the wilderness experience” (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott & C. Grenier (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 131).
Much in the way that Proust identified that our minds do not capture and relive static imagery, but rather moments or scenes that are re-played slightly differently each time according to our own mood at a certain moment, so too does Doig’s painting capture this raw reality. In Pine House (Rooms for Rent), the familiar becomes estranged and the boundaries between what is real, imagined and remembered become blurred. While Western Canada provided the catalyst and inspiration for Pine House (Rooms for Rent), Doig’s own childhood was rooted in rural Ontario and Quebec, suggesting that, like the vagabond traveler, the postcard image was the subject of his early day dreams. Indeed, for Doig, the act of painting is always retrospective, referring not to his contemporary location but to places, people and moments suspended in the past. As Adrian Searle has written, “Doig’s paintings offer a distillation of references and experience, albeit one with a somewhat hallucinogenic, giddying cast. His paintings occupy a place between personal and collective experience. He suggests other hinterlands too: the places where the city untidily peters out into the country; the point at which the painter stops attending and begins inventing, and becomes a beholder of the unfolding of an unplotted act... As images these couldn’t be produced in any other way than as paintings. There is a hinterland between a depiction... and its delivery, and it is here that Doig’s paintings are at their most specific and descriptive, and the viewer’s sense of displacement is felt most acutely” (A. Searle, Unbound: Possibilities in Painting, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1994, p. 30).