"Roadhouse is one of a series of canvases in which a bleak mental landscape-abandoned buildings, telegraph wires, lowering skies- is sandwiched between abstract panels which function as surrogate sky and ground. The arrangement was inspired by the words of a 19th Century settler in Canada's western prairies, quoted in a book on ice-hockey: Man is a grasshopper here, a mere insect making way between the enormous discs of Heaven and Earth." - Gareth Jones
A row of houses from an indeterminate place and time emerge from a fiery and desolate landscape set beyond an impassable abyss of greens and reds. Haunting and enigmatic, Peter Doig's Road House is a key work from his early practice and one that evidences many of the investigative processes he undertook to reach his mature style. The work was executed in 1991, only one year after Doig had graduated from Chelsea School of Art and the same year the artist was awarded the prestigious Whitechapel Artists Award. Road House was highlighted alongside Hitch Hiker (1989-90), The House that Jacques Built (1992), and The Young Bean Farmer (1991) as a defining work in the landmark article on Doig in the then fledgling frieze magazine in 1992. While Road House exhibits Doig's ability to draw upon a wealth of art historical references such as Barnett Newman, Edvard Munch, Caspar David Friedrich and David Milne, they are brought together through his own unique vocabulary of color, texture and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 strangely anthropomorphic houses with slanted windows for eyes and bunting for jack o' lantern teeth push forward from the orange-brown sky constructed from thin, gauze-like layers of liquidy pigment. Heavy clouds hang implausibly low and still in the sky, the thick white swathes, like dense plumes of cotton catapulted from the glowing prairie land below, all set against an iridescent green sky. 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. The theme of Road House is indicative of a larger preoccupation for the artist with transience, journeying and drifting, notions that recur time and again in his oeuvre and indeed its imagery would go on to influence and inform later masterpieces such as Daytime Astronomy (1997-98). As an early work in Doig's practice, Road House 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.
Painted at a crucial time in Doig's development, Road House is an important canvas within the artist's practice that built on the past and heralded the future. Arriving in London in 1989 to study at Chelsea School of Art, Doig's aesthetic railed against the prevailing trend, which celebrated the cooler aesthetic of the Young British Artists who were at Goldsmith's College at the time. Doig instead turned to the traditional medium of oil paint to create his landscapes of disarmingly vernacular scenes. As the artist explains of the time, "since I had just come back from Canada and was again searching for a subject, I started making these quite homely paintings, paintings of quite modest subjects," (P. Doig, quoted in K. Wright, "Keeping it Real", Modern Painters, March 2006, p. 68). While redolent of his Canadian upbringing, his paintings were not direct representations but fictionalized images evoked from his mind's eye. The landscapes depicted in works such as Road House are as Doig describes, "a place that's somehow a wilderness", a psychological wasteland inhabited by figments from our subconscious. This quality is exacerbated by the visceral texture and bold color Doig uses to create his scenes, presenting the quotidian tinged with surreal displacement.
The worlds that Doig creates in his work are built in large part from memories of the Canadian landscape he knew as a child. Indeed works from this early part of Doig's practice also seem to elaborate on what Gareth Jones identifies as an important strand in North American culture: "a yearning for space that corresponds to an idea of freedom," (G. Jones, "Weird places, Strange folk," in frieze, issue 6, September-October 1992). Of works like Road House, Doig later espoused, "They weren't paintings of Canada (though some were) but paintings of an idea of something that was maybe folk--bringing a sort of 'homeliness' into art," (P. Doig, quoted in K. Wright, "Keeping it Real," Modern Painters, March 2006, p. 68). Doig moved frequently as a child and into young adulthood and so understandably identified with the transience of a drifter's way of life. As a teenager, Doig had worked for gas drilling operations in western Canada and had inhabited rooming houses for transients. Indeed in 1999, Doig titled one of his paintings Drifter, deriving its central figure from a photograph of himself sitting on a fence, wearing a Western "cowboy" hat. Of course Road House retains an affinity with this freedom of spirit, the title recalling those unimposing inns on the side of long stretches of otherwise uninhabited highway that serve passing travelers. In many ways, Hitch Hiker serves as a companion piece to Road House, each recording the view from the other's darkened windows. Journeys real and metaphorical, places of momentary arrival and departure, real and psychological no-man's-lands, are all the territories of Doig's art.
Road House also shares a compositional affinity with Hitch Hiker through its arrangement in three distinct horizontal registers. It is also closely related to other seminal works from this period including The House that Jacques Built. As in The House that Jacques Built where Doig reserved the middle register for a view of the house while patterning the upper and lower registers as if they were details or close-ups of specific features, here, Doig focuses the figurative action of the work on the central area of the canvas, evoking the panoramic horizons of old Western film strips depicting the unforgiving frontier. As such we see how the composition of Road House could have been "inspired by the words of a 19th Century settler in Canada's western prairies, quoted in a book on ice-hockey: 'Man is a grasshopper here, a mere insect making way between the enormous discs of heaven and earth," (G. Jones, "Weird places, Strange folk," in frieze, issue 6, September-October 1992). Doig also notes that the stylistic construct of the three distinct registers also evolved from "those [Barnett] Newman paintings with the 'zips'--the ones with the little seemingly organic section', particularly those in a horizontal format, like Horizon Light 1949, with its organically brushy 'zip'". He explains: "I thought I could literally expand upon [the Newman effect] and have two abstract-organic sections and a middle that was somehow the 'grasshopper,'" (P. Doig, quoted in R. Schiff, "Incidents", J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 23). The tension created from the unrelenting horizontal division is as critical to the expression of the emotional content of Road House as the bereft elements of human life that dot the vast landscape. To this end, the human element or its surrogate often assumes an incongruously small scale, as if viewed from too far away or dwarfed by the environment.
The top and bottom panels are wholly given over to exploring the physical possibilities of paint that Doig was discovering at this time. A dark band of bluish streaks and smears runs across the top of the landscape where the sky should be. Doig noted that the discreet areas of thickly built up white pigment presented on the top panel are reminders of a decaying hunting scene mural in a bar that the artist once saw. The viscous layers of paint presented here is in stark contrast to the veiled green and orange "sky" that surrounds the houses and the shimmering pools of color which define the bottom panel. The atmospheric sky ought to recede from the land, but reveals sufficient material presence to push itself forward, in front of the loosely detailed forest that should be occupying the closer position. This passage of abstraction seems to stand in front, like a blind only partially rolled to reveal a panoramic scene. This is a conscious mistake in atmospheric perspective; Doig has allowed the qualities of paint to overrule the logical requirements of representation, indulging his curiosity as to what paints and solvents can do. Of this methodology Doig noted that he liked "the idea that maybe these sections which had opened up to reveal a strip of existence could just as easily close down again," (P. Doig, quoted in R. Schiff, "Incidents", J. Nesbitt (ed.), Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, p. 23).
In his depiction of landscape through this visual construct, Doig conflates the romanticism of big open-road film imagery with the Romantic landscape tradition of Northern Europe, echoing the composition of Caspar David Friedrich's Monk by the Seashore. Doig notes that "one thinks of West as space", and indeed in Road House, he characterizes this notion not just in the space represented by the landscape, but the space manifested by his very tactile painterly approach as well. Aside from his own store of imagery, Doig often turns to photography or film as departure points from which to embark on his painterly scenes. "I'm interested in mediated, almost clichd notions of a pastoral landscape," Doig explains, "in how notions about the landscape are manifested and reinforced in, say, advertising or film. Yet at the same time many of the paintings are rooted in my own experience. There exists a tension between these two approaches, between the often generic representation of a pastoral scene and the investment in my own experience of the landscape," (P. Doig, quoted in "Peter Doig: 20 Questions (extract)", A Searle (ed.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 131).
In this optical oscillation between figurative reality and abstracted tactility, Doig refuses to constrain the space of the represented image within the parameters of simple illusionism, freeing it to act on many different levels, from displaced memory to expressionist landscape to pure abstraction. The multitude of textures and painterly techniques offered here in Road House, exhibit the deep investigations Doig was undertaking at this early point in his career that would go on to cement his reputation as a painter of textures: the juxtapositions of thinness and thickness, wateriness and viscosity of his passages of paint elicit a sustained act of looking. Doig has succeeded in exhibiting how texture alone can open space beyond traditional linear perspective.
Doig's surfaces ebb and flow with the viewer's position, interacting with their environment in order to conceive a dream space made possible through their saturated vision. Through uninhibited viewing, visual hierarchies dissolve, allowing the disembodied eye to rove over each feature equally. Just as he seizes a mood, Doig captures a dream scene fading into its visual field. As Richard Schiff notes, "Doig opens a perceptual gap between what ought to be the object of human interest and what may well become more intriguing to the eye. He fills gaps in representational figuration with abstracted materiality--streaking, spotting, visually abrasive textures--a combination of qualities that generates an atmospheric mood without referring to anything specific in the natural world," (R. Schiff, "Drift", in R. Schiff and C. Lampert (eds.), Peter Doig, New York 2011, p. 305).
As both a pictorial and a psychological construction, Road House threatens to lose its form, to be obliterated by the abstracted chasm that stretches beyond, viewed from the black chasms of the irregular windows and the tactile cascade of color that dominates from above. Each of Doig's elements remains a separate incident with its own distinct character, barely coordinated. Just as the intense sensory quality of a dream discourages reflection on any plausible logic to its story, the assertive materiality of Doig's painting overrules whatever narrative the representational elements, might suggest. As Doig remarks, "A lot of the work deals with peripheral or marginal sites, places where the urban world meets the natural world. Where the urban elements almost become, literally, abstract devices," (P. Doig, quoted in "Peter Doig: 20 Questions (extract)", A Searle (ed.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 139).