Peter Doig on Coming Home For His Scottish National Gallery Survey

Peter Doig
(Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to believe, but Doig—born in Edinburgh, Scotland—has never had a proper large-scale exhibition in the country of his birth. That changes on August 3, when a survey of more than a decade of his paintings opens at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The show will later travel across the pond to the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. Michael Werner Gallery will also present comprehensive shows of Doig’s work this fall in both their London and New York spaces. From his studio in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Doig spoke to Modern Painters editor in chief Daniel Kunitz.

DK: This is your first time showing at a major institution in Scotland, I gather?

 

PD: I know Edinburgh well from my childhood, and I was born there. I did a two-person show there some years ago, at the Fruitmarket Gallery. But that was nothing like this, which is of paintings from 2000 until now.

DK: Do you feel the work has changed in significant ways over that period?

PD: 2000 was the year that I first started visiting Trinidad. I came here on a residency, and that’s where I am now. The method of painting changed; the paintings became a little bit more expansive, maybe more fluid, less involved with the minutiae of surface. I’m still very interested in surface but not in the same way that I was.

DK: Do you think of yourself as Scottish?

PD: I can’t help but think of myself as a Scot. But I’m part of the Scottish diaspora; a lot of people of my generation emigrated postwar with their families or sought opportunity elsewhere, outside of Scotland and the U.K. I left when I was about two years old, but I visited there a lot as a child and as a teenager.

DK: Now you’re based between London and Trinidad. Do you feel that you paint differently in each city?

PD: I think the paintings are different in Trinidad because the environment is so different—the atmosphere, the heat and the humidity, the type of studio I have here. It’s in a warehouse, a much more open space than I would have in London. The actual surface of the paintings is different. I paint on rabbit glue on linen, and for some reason it doesn’t set in the same way as it does in England or in the States. I think it’s to do with the level of moisture in the air here. So the canvases are different. They absorb paint a lot more. It’s almost like painting on bare canvas.

DK: I’m amazed that you are able to work in that environment because it seems so idyllic—conducive to being outside and not working.

PD: Yes and no. It’s very hot here so you don’t really want to be in the sun particularly, unless you go to the beach every day. But you get bored of that pretty quickly. My studio is in a really industrial part of the city of Port of Spain, which is big, almost a million people. If I showed you a picture of my studio now, you’d think it could easily be in London or New York. It doesn’t look or feel tropical.

DK: What draws you to live in Trinidad?

PD: Access to nature, and the city itself is very vibrant. It is a country that is in flux in a way, and that’s very exciting.

DK: Are you athletic? I’m thinking about the subject matter of the paintings.

PD: I played ice hockey for years; that was my sport—and skiing. My sporting life is very sort of northern, winter-based. I do swim, but I don’t “go swimming.” I just swim when I can. It’s a genuine interest; let’s put it that way. It’s not like someone who paints sports from an observer’s point of view.

DK: You can tell; there’s a physical engagement in the works.

PD: The paintings are quite physical themselves, too; they require some physicality to make them.

DK: What keeps drawing you back to landscape as a subject?

PD: It’s like painting space—it gives you room. There are areas where you’re not constricted by detail. You can kind of make it up, and there’s an abstract quality to it.

DK: What tends to prompt a painting?

PD: As a painter, you are always seeking something to paint. I’m thinking about it constantly. I’m taking lots of pictures—I’ve always done that, long before the time of digital photography—not just in the landscape or in the city but also taking pictures of pictures in magazines, of postcards, taking pictures of fragments of things. It’s a slow process of the time being right for something to emerge into a painting.

I went to the zoo the other day. They just acquired three new lions and I took my son. The lions were caged in a pretty mean enclosure, I thought—not a very nice enclosure. But the enclosure reminded me of other paintings I’ve made. Now I’m thinking about making this painting with a lion in it, which also in a way connects to another painting I made, which had a lion from a flag on it. There are all sorts of connections. It’s often seeing images or situations in the real world that remind you of your own work in a funny way. Once you’ve been painting for so many years, it’s rare that you take something completely cold and say, “I’m going to make a painting out of this.” It usually has some reference to something you’ve done before, and that’s why you’re attracted to it. Of course there are one-offs that come into play, and that’s also very interesting. But they don’t come about so often.

DK: Do you draw?

PD: I sketch crudely, thumbnail sketches that might be the beginning of something. I don’t sit down and draw things from nature; it’s more about drawing ideas.

DK: Are you ever tempted by other media—to make something that’s not a painting?

PD: I sometimes think about it, but I’ve never really gotten beyond that. I collect driftwood and I think, Maybe I’ll make a sculpture. But then in the end it just remains driftwood; it looks too good as it is.

DK: Can we talk about the painting of serial motifs, recurring subject matter that both you and someone like Edvard Munch use?

PD: Years ago I read an essay by Peter Schjeldahl called the “Greatest Hits of Edvard Munch.” It was quite interesting, the way that Munch basically had his stock images that he would go back to; he couldn’t escape them. He was obviously drawn to specific photographs. He went back to the same ones. I can empathize with that. Only certain things are important to the individual artist.

DK: What things?

PD: I’m thinking about in Munch’s case and also in mine. For instance, my painting Lapeyrouse Wall, of a guy walking along a wall with an umbrella—there are other ways I could have done that. And I did approach the figure in different ways, in a lot of the studies. But when it came to the final painting or etchings—and I’ve done a few versions of the painting too—I tend to use that same exact pose because it’s the one that I thought said it for me. There’s so many ways to draw a figure, so many different poses, and body language in painting is so important.

This article was published in the July 2013 issue of Modern Painters.

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