It's still an escape for me, painting, so it also takes me elsewhere. I don't think I would do it otherwise
Verdant mountains dominate over a solitary canoe in the distance, floating on an unnervingly still body of water, while oversized pelicans hover above the transient sun in Peter Doig's Pelican Island. Painted in 2006, Pelican Island is filled with the mood of mystery that is characteristic of Doig's oeuvre. His employment of dusky greens and pale yellows, along with hints of soft blues and oranges charge the work with a haunting intensity. The viewer is first captured by the works seemingly familiar landscape but soon after it becomes apparent that the exact location and subject matter of the painting is ambiguous. Pelican Island is not a specific place but rather a figment of Doig's imagination, influenced by different memories and events in his lifetime.
Pelican Island belongs to a body of works that evokes the lush, tranquil landscape of the artist's childhood home, Trinidad. In 2000, Doig was invited to complete a month long residency in Trinidad which fuelled his admiration and nostalgia for the island. It is for this reason that this theme has consistently appeared in his works prior to his moving there in 2002. As the artist explained, "maybe I was painting Trinidad by proxy. But maybe you are always painting where you are, even if you are actually painting somewhere else" (P. Doig, quoted in 'Kitty Scott in Conversation with Peter Doig', in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 30). What makes Pelican Island, along with other works from this time, so unique is that they are the first paintings where the place in which Doig was living has a strong connection to the place he has chosen to represent.
The artist's surreal palette of luminous grey and watery blue set against the indistinct landscape elicits an undercurrent of disturbance, an apprehensive stillness. In contrast to his more thickly impastoed works of the 1990's, Doig has applied thin diluted washes of painted layered on top of one another, drawing a connection between the seemingly limitless surface of the water and that of the painting. Through these thin veils of translucent color, Doig succeeds in imbuing Pelican Island with an immediacy and freedom normally beyond the parameters of the oil paint medium.
Pelican Island's familiar but also indistinct location provokes a sense of the uncanny that engenders a feeling of both fascination and disturbance within the beholder. Doig's offhand treatment of the subject in this painting, allows its incidental qualities to escape definite categorization. Of this Doig has explained, "I am trying to create something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words... I often use heightened colors to create a sense of the experience, or mood or feeling of being there... I think the paintings always refer back to a reality that we all have experience of" (P. Doig, quoted in K. Scott, Peter Doig, exh. cat., Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2001, pp. 15-17).
Pelican Island's color palette resembles that of Bonnard's landscapes, recalling the Post-Impressionist's exceptional application of paint to render the world as vivid as a clear memory or cherished dream. Doig stated that Bonnard's paintings, "despite the lack of visible information, give you everything you need to know: not only their identity, but also their mood. Somehow he is painting the space that is behind the eyes. It's as if you were lying in bed trying hard to remember what something looked like. And Bonnard managed to paint that strange state. It is not a photographic space at all. It is a memory space, but one which is based on reality" (P. Doig, quoted in "Peter Doig: Twenty Questions (extract), 2001," in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 142).
Although Pelican Island undoubtedly recalls the lush and untouched Trinidad landscape, the work does still inhibit the uncertainty of place and time that is so typical of Doig's practice. For, as always with Doig's works, scenes can be imagined, remembered or drawn from photographic images, but almost always remain detached and ambiguous. Doig explains, "I dont think the present day is a very important thing to depict. And you don't want to make a nostalgic painting about another time that's not totally tangible. Painting becomes interesting when it becomes timeless" (P. Doig quoted in J. Nesbitt, ed., Peter Doig, exh.cat., Tate, London 2008, p. 113).
Pelican Island features the image of a canoe drifting across a still water surrounded by the domineering landscape. The canoe is Doig's most famous motif and formed a touchstone for the artist since the beginning of his career in the 1980s. Variations of this motif appear in several of his major works such as Swamped, 1990, White Canoe, 1990-1991, Night Fishing, 1993, Canoe-Lake, 1997-1998, 100 Years Ago (Carrera), 2001, Centre Pompidou, Paris. For Doig, the canoe motif captures a sense of journey, a time in between arrival and departure, a no-man's land between waking and sleeping and the slippage between the past and the present, which contributes to the work's timelessness. The representation of birds in Pelican Island is also a recurring theme in many of Doig's recent works. Doig commented that when you see birds "flying, they're very, very elegant and beautiful. But when you see them on land they are quite hideously ugly. They have this nasty face and beak, and they live off dead things" (P. Doig, quoted in 'Peter Doig and Angus Cook in Conversation', in Peter Doig No Foreign Lands, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 2013, p. 184). The pelicans encapsulate the contrast between appearance and reality and the familiar and the unfamiliar that runs through all of Doig's art. More than flying pelicans and a solitary canoe in a still water, Pelican Island is the visual manifestation of a sensory experience, the water blurry and shimmering under the transient sun. We, like the figures in the canoe, are enveloped in a moment, lost within its lush expanse.