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Sunday, January 29, 2023
Eye for Art: ‘Milky Way’

Penny-Lynn Cookson
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report

We want to claim him as ours, not only for the formative years he spent in Canada but for the influence those years had on his subsequent art. 

Peter Doig, one of the most acclaimed artists of our time, was born in 1959 in Edinburgh, Scotland, spent three years in Trinidad and arrived in Canada at the age of seven when his accountant father was transferred by his shipping company to Montreal. 

Academically disinclined, Doig decided to be an artist and made his way to London to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and later to an MA from the Chelsea School of Art. 

It was the time of the YBAs, the outrageous young British artists like Damien Hirst, with his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, and Tracey Emin’s tent with its names of everyone she had ever slept with.

Years of no interest in Doig’s work and a lack of sales meant working part-time as a dresser for West End theatre productions. The stage experience led to a transformative quality in his work, transitional moments captured in the act of becoming. 

In 1989, he returned to Canada and spent time painting from a studio in the barn of his parents' home in Grafton, east of Cobourg. 

One night he caught the end of a video his sister was watching. It was Sean Cunningham’s cult horror film, “Friday the 13th,” when the only survivor of a murder scene, a terrified young girl, escapes in a canoe, alone on a lake. A subject that became a theme was born.

Doig went to the barn that night and painted the first of seven canoe paintings made over the next decade. The ubiquitous canoe, that quintessential fragile vessel that opened Canada’s vast wilderness to exploration and trade and remains part of our DNA, became for Doig “like an Edvard Munch painting come to life.”

The lone isolated figure, overtaken by a natural setting, inhabits the Canadian landscape of forests, lakes, reflections in water, cabins in the woods and falling snow as a source for many of his early paintings.

Doig described “Milky Way” as a mixture of what he could see from his working space in the barn and other sketches he had made of northern pines and dying trees. 

“The idea was the trees were illuminated by city light or artificial light from afar. I had just read Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” that influenced the light in these paintings as well. The canoe was used as much for scale as atmosphere, although it was important to me that the figure was slumped rather than erect.”

Doig divides the composition in three horizontal bands with the richly coloured deep sky, sparkling stars and Milky Way above, the weirdly shaped trees on the shoreline cutting across left to right and their reflections appearing in the water below. One white tree suggests death but actually balances the composition.

The reflected Milky Way across the bottom of the picture and the close proximity of the shimmering tree reflections thrust the viewer forward into the lake in a strange collapsing of space. The image of the tiny isolated canoe in the vastness becomes unsettling. Why is it there? Who is out there? 

We are part of what should be a familiar scene but is strangely tense and disorienting. It is a place of the imagination, yet real, a memory, a mood, something fugitive, mysterious. Doig’s atmospheric surfaces intercept our perception, which he says, “is the way the eye looks … you are constantly looking through things, seeing the foreground and the background at the same time … interior worlds are coming in and out of focus all the time, shifting between clarity and indistinction.”

At the top of his career, Doig lives in Trinidad where he continues to try “to create something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible to put into words.”

Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She was also head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. See her upcoming Zoom lecture series “The Germans – Art, Faith and War” onThursdays, Sept. 23 to Oct. 28 at RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston.    

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