‘Doig loves colour; he teases it in and out of shadow and reflection. His paintings are a record of physical and psychological travels. Filled with mystery, they are icons of autobiography filtered through an acute perception. In The Heart of Old San Juan, a basketball court is blanketed in lush, jumping green, documenting Doig’s visit to Puerto Rico’ (H. Zuckerman Jacobson, Peter Doig/MATRIX 183, exh. cat., Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, 2000, unpaged).
‘Journeys real and metaphorical, places of arrival and departure, no-man’s lands between waking and sleeping, and the slippage between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary, are the territories of Doig’s art’ (A. Searle, ‘A Kind of Blankness’ in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 52).
‘Indeed as in Matisse, colour in Doig’s work constitutes its own speculative space, a world of its own that responds dialectically to the real world. Unlike his predecessor, however, Doig uses paint to institute a world that does not bespeak the plenitude of colour but, rather, the impossible accomplishment of pure matter, haunted as it is by the sense of depth. The transparency characteristic of the way he handles paint brings to the surface zones of turbulence that contradict the apparent harmony of the coloured structure. An impression of something never finished, of a constitutive incompleteness, tempers the handsome order of the painting that, quite literally, lets itself become absorbed by its support. We could then say that this painting is not physical, but atmospheric: colour is non-matter, form a luminous density’ (C. Grenier, ‘Reconquering the World: 100 Years Ago’ in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 109).
‘I often use heightened colours to create a sense of the experience or mood or feeling of being there (in the scene), but it’s not a scientific process. I think the paintings always refer back to a reality that we all have experience of. We have all seen incredible sunsets… I am using these natural phenomena and amplifying them through the materiality of paint and the activity of painting’ (P. Doig, quoted R. Shiff, ‘Drift’, in A. Searle et al. (eds.), Peter Doig, London 2007, p. 316).
With its image of the sun setting in the top right hand corner over the deep blue ocean and dramatically bathing the sumptuous emerald basketball court in an extraordinary twilight, The Heart of Old San Juan represented a key shift in Peter Doig’s practice when it was painted in 1999. It was the first fully realized painting Doig made of a tropical landscape. All of the key concerns of Doig’s work to this point are present; the man-made, hand-painted basketball court in the centre of a beautifully natural landscape. The deep abstraction of the veils of liquid paint dripping down the painting and the geometric lines which mark the court, but which have been carefully cropped to infer a Modernist abstraction, play against the mottled texture of the paint in the perimeter fence at the top and the trees beyond. However these have now been transferred from the autumnal and winter landscapes of Canada which occupied Doig for most of the 1990s and are re-enlivened by the Tropical setting. Subtle inferences like the curving of the shadow of the basketball hoop give a clue that the humidity has changed, as have the colours and landscape. This work holds a significant place in Doig’s oeuvre, representing a paradigmatic shift away from the autumnal and wintery landscapes of snowy Canada in the early 1990s towards a renewed fascination with the tropics which has occupied his practice for the last 15 years. In these works, which were the subject of last year’s landmark exhibition No Foreign Lands (which toured the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 2013, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 2014), the paint becomes lighter and more distilled. Moving away from the application of thick texture and multiple techniques in each painting, Doig began to investigate the veiling of sequential layers of liquid paint, looking at how light changes of tone and hue in each veil create a diaphanous surface replete with the sense of being there. The heat, humidity and, most importantly, light are dramatically conveyed by this approach in stark contrast to the need for his thick application of snow-like paint for example. For Doig, the act of painting is always retrospective, referring not to his contemporary location but to the memory of a place suspended in the past, inviting the beholder to share in the mental terrain of the picture plane and to allow the paint to help us experience the place. The return to the Caribbean must have been incredibly nostalgic, having moved to Trinidad in 1960 from Scotland as a one year old, he spent his next six years there before moving to Canada. Visiting one of his great early patrons in Puerto Rico during the mid 1990s, it was through this relationship that Doig became reacquainted with the tropical islands and was eventually inspired to create the present work. Painted in 1999, this work can be seen as a key instigator to for his return to Trinidad the following year, when Doig was offered the opportunity to travel to Trinidad to undertake a month long artist’s residency before permanently relocating there in 2002 with his then young family. Painted in his London and Vienna studios, the airy quality of light and highly-keyed colour of The Heart of Old San Juan predicts the features that would come to define his Trinidadian works, such as 100 Years Ago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and 100 Years Ago (Carrera), 2001, Centre Pompidou, Paris and Gasthof, 2004. As such a keynote work, The Heart of Old San Juan has been included in most of his major museum exhibitions since it was made.
FROM TUNDRA TO TROPICS
The title, The Heart of Old San Juan takes its cue from the billboard image which has been re-painted in the top left hand corner propped up on the building’s roof. The basketball court in the town of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, represents the heart of the community. A place normally buzzing with activity, here the public basketball court is left to silently bask in the glowing sunset light. Across the bottle green surface the hoops cast billowy, bending shadows on the court as they glimmer in the Puerto Rican heat. The basketball court is formed of light, gauzy layers of paint. Originally hand-painted itself, Doig here tried to re-present it at twilight with the sun setting; its time and activity worn surface still glowing after all these years. On its perimeter there is a buzzing friction between the loose application of the light veils of colour and the soft washes of translucent cream and greens and the quick vertical brush strokes which create the sway of a breezy lawn, simulating the hazy atmosphere of the tropical holiday photograph. Above this, the perimeter fence shows a thicker application, the suggestion of looking through a geometric abstraction which Doig so beautifully captured in Night Playground just a year prior. In the top right hand corner, a glowing sun dips below an infinite sapphire sea.
Having lived in the hustle-and-bustle of London, the laid-back island attitude of the islands offered a different sense of community to that which he was experiencing. A short walk from where he was staying, the basketball court is visible from the roadside, the breath-taking ocean vista in the distance viewed from a raised, almost God-like perspective. Recognising the significance of the basketball court as the centre of the neighbourhood, The Heart of Old San Juan reflects a reconnection with community of his youth. Captivated by the tropical landscape he had so recently rediscovered, it was these sojourns that prompted Doig to relocate from London and settle in the Caribbean with his family two years later.
Inspired by a photograph from his trip to Old San Juan, Doig translated the image of the basketball court in his London and Vienna studios, first creating multiple preparatory sketches from different angles before producing this monumentally-scaled painting in 1999. Throughout his career, Doig has operated through a process of displacement. His paintings draw upon an extensive personal archive of imagery to record memories, journeys, and experiences deeply embedded in his psyche. 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-positioned motifs. Abstracted both in technique and in the artist’s distance from the place, Doig paints how it appears in the mind’s eye.
FROM FIGURATION TO ABSTRACTION
Conjuring the memory of Old San Juan, Doig employed painterly processes to recreate the aqueous and delicately diffuse quality of equatorial light. Moving towards abstraction, although this is clearly a figurative image we are looking at, it is through the use of light and colour that we identify this as a tropical painting. Doig described these early tropical paintings as ‘pure paintings, which evolve into a type of abstraction’ (P. Doig, quoted in J. Nesbitt, ‘A Suitable Distance, Peter Doig, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2008, pp. 19-20). Indeed, the abstract painterly processes and formalist strategies played out here would come to define his celebrated tropical works. The theme of abstraction both in painting and physical distance from the place which he is painting is indicative of a larger preoccupation for the artist with transience, journeying and drifting, notions that recur time and again in his oeuvre. Capturing a specific place of significance to the artist, the painting 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.
An artistic forefather who of course experienced a similar re-awakening when he moved to warmer climes was Paul Gauguin and indeed Doig’s palette continues the Modernist legacy of colourists who sought to reimagine the world through colour. Rendered in gauzy layers, the fields of contrasting visual texture share a dialogue with Mark Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s bands of translucent colour, whilst simultaneously referencing Paul Gauguin’s Cloisonnist planes and Henri Matisse’s reductive treatment of the landscapes. The bold tripartite structure organises the composition, and geometrical form gives way to a figurative landscape comprised of bands of bright, emerald green, deep sapphire and sky blue. Indeed, this formal division of the landscape closely recalls the bands of green, navy, and blue that formed Matisse’s 1908 painting Bathers With a Turtle; a painting that would go on to form the basis of the artist’s 100 Year series. Doig later described this work as 'one of the greatest paintings I’ve ever seen. There’s so much to look at, and yet it’s so empty and so vague in what it’s depicting. It’s so brave in its division of space, and it constantly confuses you because you don’t know really what you’re looking at. It seems to be a constantly questioning painting and, in many ways, incomplete’ (P. Doig, quoted in D. Solway, 'Peter Doig’, in W Magazine, November 2008).
With its very specifically cropped composition and the delicately balanced geometry of the lines on the man-made basketball court, this work offers a deft nod to Modernism in an otherwise wildly natural landscape. Emphasising the strong geometric patterns, Doig invites the viewer to marvel at the perfected line and horizontal striations of colour which comprise this constructed landscape. Its openness is aided by the transparent hoops, which behave like the geometric shapes of Sol LeWitt, making visible the trees and landscape in the distance which in turn transform into geometric shapes. An artist clearly looking at the legacy of Modernism to inform his landscape, Doig creates a dramatic reflection on man’s highly mediated relationship with nature. By condensing the landscape to distinct bands of colour, the careful cropping of the composition places the viewer above the court, making us aware not only of the work’s photographic source, but also of our own absence from the scene.
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 Doig’s The Heart of Old San Juan 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.