Insider Outsider: Artists Engaging the Exotic

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Peter Doig, J.M. at Paragon, 2004

This past Thursday March 17, artist Peter Doig spoke at the Phillips Collection (new window) as part of their Duncan Phillips Lecture Series. A practitioner who has worked and studied in many corners of the globe, Doig (who currently resides in Trinidad) has sought to open up paintings outside of the four squares of the canvas; depicting scenes which allow the viewer to bring in their own sense of time, place, memory.

Certainly, this is no easy task, yet through his balance of the painterly and the art historical, Doig has created a successful international practice. Coinciding with the recent opening of Gauguin: maker of myth at The National Gallery, in his talk Doig spoke to the fact that his paintings often making historical references to previous works. Specifically with his move to Trinidad, Gauguin has been a fixture many have drawn connections to.

Paul Gauguin, Parahi Te Marae (The Sacred Mountain), 1892

It’s easy to see why one would make such associations upon seeing the work. In recent years, Doig has transitioned away from a more abstracted style, adapting a bolder, perhaps chunkier, aesthetic inclination towards more simplified color fields and shapes.  His canvases moving more and more towards dealing directly with questioning the space of a painting; and engaging the idea of taking the portrait of a place, using the picture frame as a device, and exploring what is captured within those devices.

The aesthetic choices of both Doig and Gauguin, having given up Europe and the Americas, are not all together removed from one another. Located within the ever shaky title of the “exotic artist,” a title often given to someone working in a tropical or remote place, both artist’s work offers a small look, a window, into this space. In his talk Doig specifically addressed his personal exploration and reflection on, “what [he] could use authentically; what was valid as an artist from Europe in an unknown place.” Here is where careful distinctions between the two artists must be made, for Gauguin certainly had decisively different intentions.

If there is something I have come to believe from both travel and residency, it is that light is unique in every space, and in the tropics the bright brights and dark darks heightens the punchy colors favored by local residents. And so in this way, the canvases of both Gauguin and Doig certainly create a mood, and one could argue that the mood of a space is a piece of its essence. Yet when picturing the residents of any locale, this attempt to capture the local color functions in a decisively different way. This is where Gauguin, in his presentation of a native population (which truly was myth both overseas as well as in Tahiti), ran into issues as a product of the historical time and place: a mythicized depiction of the “exotic.”  In fact NPR (new window) recently presented (new window) a highly relevant piece on this very subject, and the title of the current show, Maker of Myth, is meant to reflect this notion.

Peter Doig, Lapeyrouse Wall, 2004

Towards the end of his talk, Doig closed with some final sentiments on how living in (and returning to) Trinidad has shaped his practice. In a notable moment sprinkled with both amusement and reverence, Doig described his experience of the yearly ‘Carnival,’ a time during which the songs blasting out of stacked up boom-boxes shrink to a small 5 or 7 song playlist. “There is a rhythm to the city…. the entire residents of the city know [every nuance of] the beat of the music.” Doig said. And one can imagine a type of cohesion which is created: a shared feeling, a transcendent  pause in which the light and the people shift and sway together, with the rhythmic air of Trinidad, moving as one; Doig serving both as witness and as participant.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth (new window)

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (new window)

February 27–June 5, 2011

Peter Doig: Four piece installation at the Phillips Collection, on view now