Understated, elegant and subtle, the paintings of Peter Doig are already distinguished as highly remarkable among the generation of painters who have come of age in the 1990s in Britain, America, or elsewhere. Initially his works appear conventional in subject matter and imagery, (snow covered mountain, a pond, a house nestled in a forest, a figure gazing into a puddle) but a closer inspection reveals rich layers of detail and a sophisticated grasp of contemporary visual references. Doig makes paintings of scenes that could only really be actualized as painting, yet the sources for his works can come from film, photography, or clips from contemporary visual culture.
In White Creep a vast snow capped mountain juts upward in a way that dwarfs the sky. The snow is white and fresh, yet there is a depth to it, implying that this mountain is permanently covered in snow. The snow is an abstract tapestry of white and shades of white with craggy black rocks peeking through. It is a Clyfford Still of whiteness, with palimpsest of gray and blue evident below the surface. A scan of the natural tableaux reveals a group of skiers in the middle left section of the painting. They are small in comparison to their alpine setting. Each figure is depicted as specific in detail yet perfectly anonymous. Their bright jackets make them visible, but they do not compete with the grandness of nature that envelops them. Each figure, while part of a group, seems profoundly alone in the unfathomable openness of the space.
Such ominous and romantic landscapes are a 19th century invention, well exemplified in the works of Casper David Friendrich. Doig borrows from Friedrich's use of nature as a backdrop for human wandering and soul-searching. We imagine each skier in White Creep moving, not in relation to one other, but rather, as one competes with one's own self. Doig's treatment of the environment, however, owes more to his upbringing in Canada's immense open spaces. His work can be seen as a continuation of a tradition of the legendary Group of Seven from the early twentieth century Canadian art history, a movement that gave Canadian art its identity with colorful landscapes and textured painterly surfaces. Doig particularly identifies with the work of Tom Thomson, a renegade painter active in the 1910s and 20s who sought to depict scenes in rural Canada where perhaps no human had ever set foot before. White Creep's expansive snow mound is just this kind of place Thomson might have painted.
Doig's works strives to render things we may never have seen but only imagined. White Creep's lurking snow mass is composed in a way that would be totally impossible for the naked eye to see. One's eye could never take in this image in just one perspective. It would take physical movement or extensive visual tracking to make the whole of the image visually coherent. This tells the viewer that while the source material for this work may have come from a film or a photograph, it most certainly sprung from Doig's mind compositionally.
By referencing vaguely Naïve style in his works, Doig is successful in his ability to make the anachronistic seem immediate and psychologically relevant. Connecting to the naïve tradition gave Doig a painterly liberation and the chance to hang on to the emotional content of his ideas. This subtle emotional quality is melancholic and atmospheric. Doig is well aware that our culture's distant and jaded relationship to nature is bound to spark feelings of uneasiness and longing. White Creep is just the place we long to be, or at least a fantasy of where we long to be.
Tom Tomson, Woodland Waterfall, 1916-17
McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada
Purchase 1977 with Funds Donated by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation
Caspar David Friedrich, The Snow-bound Hut, c. 1826-27