‘Each of [his] paintings holds an underlying tension. Charley’s Space (1991) can be considered a key work in that respect. It is snowing on the canvas and, in the twilight, we can make out an illuminated house. A white shadow is moving in from the lower right corner. A circle motif of some indefinable substance dominates the entire image. The eye of the painter seems to be focusing in order to grant us a clear view of the world behind this, but as the film director Stanley Kubrick once said, “Never reveal your mystery”’
–Paula van den Bosch
‘They’re worlds within worlds within worlds’
An icon of Peter Doig’s early practice and a mesmerising technical tour de force, Charley’s Space is the first of the celebrated ‘snow’ paintings that would come to define the artist’s output of the 1990s. Blurred and distorted like television static, a raging blizzard is tinted, fractured and magnified beneath a floating circular lens. A lone house lingers on the horizon; a ghostly figure hovers on the right-hand margin. A prismatic spectrum of colour and texture dissolves the distinction between foreground and background, animating the composition to the point of abstract frenzy. Begun during his final year at Chelsea School of Art in London, the work coincides with Doig’s receipt of the prestigious Whitechapel Artist Award: an accolade that propelled him into the public eye. Combining dense painterly narratives with personal recollections, disparate visual sources and a filmic mise-en-scène, it vividly dramatises the shifting strata of memory, vision and daydream. It is based, in part, on a photograph taken by Doig of his parents’ house in Canada: a source that gave rise to the pendant 1991 painting Pink Snow (Museum of Modern Art, New York) as well as the 1993 masterpiece Pond Life. Its title, however, relates to a security guard named Charley, who chanced upon Doig at work in one of the studios at Chelsea. ‘Huh. Space’, he observed – a striking utterance from a man of few words. The remark prompted a realisation that would fuel Doig’s practice: that every viewer finds their own space within a painting, guided by their recollections and experiences. ‘They’re worlds within worlds within worlds’, he would later profess (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Blotter, exh. cat., Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, 1995, p. 14). As a testament to its significance, Charley’s Space became the title of Doig’s 2004 touring exhibition at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, in which the painting was a centrepiece.
The circle at the heart of the composition remains one of the most enigmatic constructs in Doig’s oeuvre. At some point during its execution, the painting was purposefully cut down to focus more closely on this motif. It was initially inspired by the opening snow globe scene of the 1941 film Citizen Kane: one of the most famous flashbacks in cinematic history, in which the protagonist is transported from his deathbed back to a snow-filled memory from his youth. Doig is fascinated by the mediums of film and theatre – he worked as a dresser for the English National Opera during his studies – and the circle is replete with dramatic allusions. At times it conjures a spotlight, recasting the work as a stage set. At others, it hovers like a searchlight, evoking the world of thriller, 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. Beneath its searing purple glare, the sheer complexity of Doig’s blizzard comes into focus. Paint is sprayed and scattered like powder; it is dragged in melting rivulets like thawing ice, coalescing now and again into viscous strands. A further veil of enlarged dots coats the surface, sporadically tinged with orange, yellow, red, blue and black, like damp fog refracted through a beam of light. Quivering as if paused in motion, the flakes take on the quality of a distorted transmission: a moving image caught between frames. Surveying the maelstrom like a gigantic eye, the floating orb becomes a metaphor for the volatile mechanics of sight, hindsight, introspection and déjà-vu. ‘Charley’s space’ is also the space of the viewer: the point at which the world of the painting collides with our own tangled field of vision.
Notwithstanding Doig’s encounter with Charley himself, the present work bears witness to the formative lessons learnt at Chelsea. Alongside Swamped (1990), Rosedale (1991), Iron Hill (1991) and The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), it is one of a number of early large-scale canvases that collectively laid the foundations for his practice. In contrast to Goldsmiths – home to many of Doig’s conceptual ‘Young British Artist’ contemporaries – Chelsea placed great emphasis upon ‘solid British painterly abstraction’. ‘People were really into materials, for the first time I saw people buying expensive paint’, Doig recalls. ‘I started to think what you could do with materials as well as with subject’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Peter Doig’, Financial Times, 7 March 2014). Charley’s Space eloquently demonstrates the influence of this way of thinking, offering a dizzying fusion of content and execution. Paint is layered in the same way as memory: left to dry, overwritten, redirected and entwined. It is imbued with the traces of its own history; half-buried colours and textures glimmer like forgotten thoughts. Ancestral teachings shift in and out of focus: the wintry lighting effects of Claude Monet, the all-over patterns of Jackson Pollock. At Chelsea, Doig discovered paint’s metamorphic properties. It was a pliable, temporal substance that could shift between states. It could be one thing at the same time as something else. In Charley’s Space, paint – with all its inconsistencies, slippages and disguises – becomes a cipher for the process of looking inside one’s head.
‘LOOKING INTO YOUR SOUL’: DOIG’S FIRST SNOW PAINTING
Doig’s practice is deeply informed by his own experience of displacement. Born in Scotland, he moved with his family to Trinidad at the age of two, before settling in Canada at the age of seven. At nineteen he moved to London to attend art school, returning to Montreal for a brief period in the mid-1980s before coming back to London to complete his MA, where he remained for a large part of the 1990s. ‘We never lived in a house for more than three years’, he recalls of his childhood. ‘My thinking is always between places’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Peter Doig’, Financial Times, 7 March 2014). The works produced during the early 1990s are devoted to capturing the sensation of being caught between realms: of looking back on a distant time or location. During this period, the Canadian landscape of his youth became a filter through which Doig sought to explore these states. His works were based less on specific recollections than on the idea of remembering. The vast terrains of Canada were abstracted into a set of hazy screens: frozen lakes swimming with reflections, forests dense with pine trees, ferocious, all-consuming blizzards. They concealed and distorted their surroundings, inviting the viewer to look through them in search of the reality on the other side. The elemental features of the Canadian wilderness became metaphors for memory, with its half-way territories, its twilight zones and its sprawling stretches of blankness.
Charley’s Space is the first painting in which the snowstorm assumed this role. Across its near-holographic surface, medium and subject – paint and blizzard – become one. In places it is thick and compacted; elsewhere it glistens like liquid or dissolves into an ethereal haze. This treatment set in motion a trajectory that would continue throughout Doig’s works of the early 1990s. In Pink Snow, Doig reduces his pigment to a powered vapour that hovers like rising mist. In Rosedale, the flakes coalesce into distinct linear bands, recalling a video tape paused on rewind. In Pond Life, these dots take on the quality of an architectural blueprint, as if delineating areas for cutting, pasting or enlarging. In Cobourg 3 + 1 More (1994), Doig took to throwing handfuls of paint at the canvas, pushing the work to the brink of total white-out. Throughout his oeuvre, the blizzard rages to varying degrees of intensity. It flutters like snowflakes and settles in gleaming white mounds, or is sprayed into the air by soaring skiers. It lingers upon the grass on sunlit summer days, and speckles the air on starry nights. In the Concrete Cabins, created between 1991 and 1999, it morphs into thick, abstract globules that simulate the paint-splattered surfaces of Doig’s source images. Like the large coloured dots that punctuate the blizzard in Charley’s Space, they break the work’s illusory spell, inviting us to view it as a construction. They remind us – like the snow globe in Citizen Kane – that we are looking at ‘worlds within worlds within worlds’.
For Doig, then, snow was never simply a souvenir from his youth, but rather a conceptual motif that transcended time and place. It was a notional, rather than a figurative, device – one of obfuscation, interruption and disorientation. He has spoken in this regard of his admiration for Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1567). ‘When you look at [Bruegel’s painting]’, he explains, ‘the snow is almost all the same size, it’s not perspectival, it’s this notion of the “idea” of snow, which I like. It becomes like a screen, making you look through it’ (P. Doig, quoted in L. Edelstein, ‘Peter Doig: Losing Oneself in the Looking’, Flash Art, Vol. 31, May-June 1998, p. 86). This influence is already evident in Charley’s Space, particularly in the way that the flakes themselves – much like Bruegel’s – resolve into clean, abstract circles. Fascinated by moving images, Doig felt that Bruegel had anticipated the so-called ‘snow’ that flickers across television screens in moments of electronic interference. Indeed, as the artist has explained, his snow paintings were equally inspired by films and photographs of wartime bombing during the 1990s. ‘I was very influenced by those shaky images of fighting at night with flashes of explosions that appeared like blurred white spots on the screen’, he has said (P. Doig, quoted in U. Küster, ‘Working with the Image: A Conversation with Peter Doig’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2014, p. 12). In Charley’s Space, the conflation of different-sized splatters and dots causes the surface to stutter as if suspended on playback. Like The Adoration of the Magi, or a piece of crackling footage, the painting becomes a half-told story from another land.
Doig’s fascination with snow is also grounded in his alchemical appreciation of paint. He handles his pigment like the very substance it depicts – spraying it, scattering it, shaping it, layering it over multiple pre-existing grounds. ‘At the time I was thinking about how the effect of a material could be used to describe conditions of weather or to suggest weather’, he has explained. ‘I had the opportunity to look at painters who had worked in that same vein in Canada. Paterson Ewen was an artist I had never heard of until I went back to Canada. I saw a large exhibition of his work, and it made a big impression on me, as well as paintings by Canadian artists such as Tom Thomson and David Milne. Maybe the surface is an abstraction of the memory of being in a certain frame of mind under certain weather conditions and in certain places’ (P. Doig, ‘Kitty Scott in Conversation with Peter Doig’, in A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 14). The effect, much like being caught in a blizzard, is a slippage between reality and its illusion. Paint becomes snow; in the blink of an eye it becomes paint again. The artist, explains Doig, is under the same spell. ‘Painting fools you’, he claims. ‘You are on your own for long spells of time and often quite late at night inhaling all these fumes, and you get quite delirious. Turpentine definitely intoxicates you, it’s like a drug in this respect’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Peter Doig’, Financial Times, 7 March 2014). Intriguingly, a later snow painting – Blotter (1993) – drew inspiration from his teenage experiments with LSD.
In Charley’s Space, this sense of painterly hallucination is borne out in the work’s remarkable palette. ‘I often use heightened colours to create a sense of the experience or mood or feeling of being there, but it’s not a scientific process’, explains Doig. ‘… We’ve all experienced the sensation of light dropping and producing strange natural effects, and I think in a way I am using these natural phenomena and amplifying them through the materiality of paint and the activity of painting … When I was making the “snow” paintings I was looking a lot at Monet, where there is this incredibly extreme, apparently exaggerated use of colour’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 132). Taking cues from the Impressionists and Pointillists, as well as Pierre Bonnard, Doig’s purple tint is in fact a palimpsest of multiple hues. Beneath the frosted surface of the painting, a psychedelic array of colours bleeds across the picture plane: a veritable aurora borealis, evoking both the hallowed glow of twilight and the chromatic splendour of dawn. Like a hologram, the quality of the colour changes from different angles. Orange and yellow glimmers shift the overall hue towards infra-red, whilst specks of white and blue return it to its frozen depths. Memories of hot and cold climates coexist; day and night, summer and winter – Trinidad, perhaps, and Canada. Doig has spoken of his fascination with ‘the way that you perceive things when you are in the mountains – for example, when you are feeling warm in an otherwise cold environment, and how the light is often extreme’ (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2001, p. 20). In the twin temperatures of Charley’s Space, Doig’s worlds combine to create an image of almost supernatural luminescence.
‘WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS’: PAINTED SPACES
If Charley’s Space is a vision of lost bearings, it is held in tension with a tantalising glimpse of home. The work marks one of the earliest appearances of the cabin in his oeuvre: a motif that came to dominate his work throughout the 1990s. It was, to some extent, another Canadian import, frequently echoing the New Build Executive Log Homes that populated the landscape throughout his youth. At the same time, it was a deliberate reaction to the prevailing artistic trends he observed during his time at Chelsea. ‘I wanted to make some homely paintings’, he explained. ‘You have to remember the kind of art that was being exhibited at the time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s most art had a clean, contemporary, slick look … I purposefully made works that were handmade and homely looking, and this was often the subject of the work as well. I started with very modest homes, like cabins. So I started by painting a cabin, and then I moved up the line. I became more interested in what buildings represent. How in a very modest structure, did someone decide to place the windows? Often they seemed to be anthropomorphised’ (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle et al (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 16). Buried within forests and blizzards, Doig’s cabins quivered like half-forgotten memories, or relics from another time and place. Beneath their veneer of nostalgic cliché, they awaken a primal sense of unease in the viewer, as if having stumbled into private territory. They are at once welcoming and foreboding: ‘homely’, yet somehow not of this world.
Throughout his oeuvre, however, Doig’s figurative narratives are permanently on the point of dissolution. ‘Painting should evolve into a type of abstraction’, he claims; ‘it should slowly dissipate into something else through time, through working, seeing things through’ (P. Doig, ‘Peter Doig and Chris Ofili in Conversation’, in Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2008, p. 121). In Charley’s Space, the picture plane becomes a vast, knotted pit of allusion, by turns encrusted and gnarled, thin and permeable. It is a world where the sublimity of nature and the terror of the wilderness borders on the homespun and the folkloric. ‘Oil paint has a kind of melting quality, really, and I love the way that even when it’s dry it’s not really fixed’, he explains. ‘Or it doesn’t seem to be fixed. The colours continue to meld together, and react with each other’. Doig allows these characteristics to emerge over extended periods, frequently leaving his paintings to lie dormant in his studio before returning to them at later intervals. ‘[T]he actual painting changes physically over time’, he elaborates. ‘It’s inherently unstable. The paint changes, so for instance, when you return to a painting, you’re painting on top of old paint, and that is different to painting on top of new paint’ (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 2013, pp. 191-92). By embracing paint’s material and historical contingency, Doig allows it to take on a mercurial quality. Like a grainy reel of tape caught between shifting scenes, it is permanently in transit.
‘I never try to create real spaces – only painted spaces’, says Doig. ‘That’s all I am interested in’ (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig, Charley’s Space, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2003, p. 33). In Charley’s Space, the experience of peering through the blizzard invokes not only the act of remembering, but ultimately the act of looking at a painting. Like the costumed figure who haunts the margins of the composition, we become part of an almost theatrical space: a film set in which reality, fantasy and illusion slip seamlessly in and out of focus. There are props, characters and screens; there are special effects and cinematic lighting. ‘I’d love to think the paintings were like movies and that the viewer becomes the director of the movie’, Doig has said (P. Doig, quoted in Peter Doig: Blotter, exh. cat., Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, 1995, p. 12). In Charley’s circular space – the spotlight, the camera lens, the X-ray, the all-seeing eye – we momentarily assume this role. Beneath its glare, the painting reveals its artifice; it was never a story, but merely a set of prompts. As we peel back its complex layers, we slowly start to build our own narratives. The figure and the cabin are sampled anew by our imagination; they are archetypes that speak, however distantly, to our own experience. ‘Charley’s space’ is an entry point; in it, Doig captures the inarticulate moment in which the work lights up for the viewer. Tinged with the afterglow of memory, the painted space temporarily becomes real.
TWO WORKS BY PETER DOIG: PROPERTY SOLD TO BENEFIT THE DONALD R. SOBEY FOUNDATION
‘Like so many other Canadians, I am thankful for the light that Peter’s work has shined on Canada’s landscape and collective symbols. Art lovers across our country are truly proud of the place he has taken in art history and my sincere hope is that these masterpieces will enable Peter to help forge a bigger path for other Canadian artists to follow in these footsteps’
–Donald R Sobey
Christie’s is delighted to present two outstanding works by Peter Doig – Charley’s Space (1991) and Snowballed Boy (1995) – sold to benefit the Donald R Sobey Foundation. The Foundation is committed to the advancement of Canadian culture through the promotion of the visual arts, both within Canada and abroad.
In 2002, as Chair of the Sobey Art Foundation, Donald Sobey founded the Sobey Art Award, Canada’s pre-eminent art award for Canadian artists under age 40. Now in its 15th year, the Award has advanced the standing of young Canadian artists around the world.
As Chair Emeritus of the Sobey Art Foundation, Mr Sobey founded the Donald R Sobey Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Culture. Key among its cultural programming activities has been exhibition support for leading contemporary First Nations artists and infrastructure support for Inuit studio and print making space in Cape Dorset Nunavut.
In 2019, the Donald R Sobey Foundation, in conjunction with the Sobey Art Foundation, will undertake an ambitious multi-year program to strengthen international exhibition opportunities for contemporary Canadian artists. The proceeds of the sale of Charley’s Space and Snowballed Boy will support an endowment designed for this program.
Doig himself lived in Canada between the ages of seven and nineteen, returning for a short period during the mid-1980s. The country had a lasting impact upon his psyche, and his memories of the Canadian landscape gave rise to some of his most significant paintings throughout the 1990s. His snowfilled canvases sought to capture the sensation of remembering past places. ‘I had the opportunity to look at painters who had worked in that same vein in Canada’, he has explained, citing Tom Thomson and David Milne as particular influences. ‘… Maybe the surface is an abstraction of the memory of being in a certain frame of mind under certain weather conditions and in certain places.’