Art

LANDSCAPE REVERIES

A painter’s northern romantic sensibility was shaped by a Canadian childhood

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER December 10 2001
Art

LANDSCAPE REVERIES

A painter’s northern romantic sensibility was shaped by a Canadian childhood

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER December 10 2001

LANDSCAPE REVERIES

Art

A painter’s northern romantic sensibility was shaped by a Canadian childhood

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

Canoe-Lake seems quintessentially Canadian. The large canvas has all the mythic elements of the northern wilderness—a lone figure in a canoe drifts across a lake set against an expanse of dark, brooding woods. Even the title hints at Tom Thomson, the revered painter and icon to the Group of Seven, who is believed to have drowned when his canoe overturned in Canoe Lake, Ont., in 1917. But horrormovie fans will recognize another allusion in this deceptively simple work, one of 14 large-scale canvases in a new exhibit that opens at Toronto’s Power Plant Gallery on Dec. 8. The painting, by British artist Peter Doig, is based on a scene from the horror blockbuster Friday the 13th—the dream sequence near the end of the movie, when the heroine, believing she has escaped the killer, slumps into the canoe and drifts across a lake.

Cheeky, perhaps, for a Scottish-born, Canadian-raised artist to twin a Canuck moment with a tacky Hollywood one. Except that Doig—in his first major exhibit in Canada—may be uncovering a new relevance in the familiar Group of Seven, as well as masters like David Milne and Paterson Ewen. “There is this roster of Canadian greats that excites him,” says the National Gallery’s curator of contemporary art, Kitty Scott, who organized the Doig exhibit. “Very few contemporary painters are looking at these artists in a close way.” In Doig’s innovative paintings, Scott sees the same tension and wariness of nature found in the fiction of Margaret Atwood. Doig has attracted considerable acclaim in Europe and the United States for his images of snow, canoes, lakes, forests and isolated houses evoking the Great White North. “A lot of my paintings aren’t of Canadian subjects, but somehow they always end up looking Canadian,” says Doig, 42. “In Europe, people see it as a northern romantic sensibility.”

The Power Plant show is, in a sense, a

homecoming. The artist, who lives in London with his wife, Bonnie, and their four daughters, spent his childhood and adolescent years in Quebec and Ontario. His parents moved to Montreal in 1966, when he was 7, then relocated to Foster, Que., before settling in Toronto. Doig first became interested in painting while attending a Toronto high school, and in

1979 he headed to London to study art. It was there that he later encountered the lively, influential Young British Artists, who were determined to reinvent a fading medium. Often called a “hopeless romantic,” Doig felt little affinity for the conceptual and photo-based work that constituted cutting-edge Canadian art. In Britain, he felt free to experiment with the legacy of the Group of Seven, dismissed by most serious artists as stale.

In Figure in Mountain Landscape, one of the works in the Power Plant show, Doig makes a deliberate connection to the Group of Seven. Its starting point is a photograph of Franklin Carmichael, one of the lesser-known members, shot from behind as he sits outdoors in a large hooded

cloak, painting a landscape. In Figure, Carmichael is abstracted into a shamanlike entity, almost part of the scenery. Doigs painting may be a homage to the venerable artist, but it also highlights their differences. “His painting is all about being out in nature,” says Doig. “I have no interest in doing that.” Doig intentionally removed himself from the landscape by painting a picture of an artist painting a picture. His works—abstract yet representational—capture nature from the perspective of an artist at a distance, consciously aware of art history. “I am trying to make it real and make it seem like a memory,” says Doig.

Doig sometimes starts off with a borrowed image—a photo, a postcard, a movie still—and then shapes it according to personal memories and recollections of other images. Ski Jacket, a dazzling, impressionistic painting of a winter playground that could easily be taken for a hill anywhere in Canada, is based on a news-

paper photograph of a Japanese ski resort. While there is a vaguely oriental feel to the shimmering work—which gives the sense of a landscape perceived through a blur of snow—place is less important here than experience. “I wanted to abstract that sensation of being in a landscape in winter when it is cold and you may have coloured goggles on,” says Doig. In his signature painterly style, the artist built up the surface of the canvas with splatters and drips in opalescent colours reminiscent of synthetic skiwear.

Back in the ’80s, in the heyday of the avant garde, artists would scoff at Doigs frequent allusions to art history. “Critics say that my work is a rehash,” says Doig. “But I like that.” While many contemporary artists prefer to explore popular culture and technology in emerging media, Doig, described as a “radical traditionalist” by one critic, attempts to incorporate concepts from video, cinema and photography into his paintings. Fie seems interested in how we sort and remember all kinds of imagery. Take Canoe-Lake. While it may appear that the artist is merely recycling a slasher flick moment, Doig seized on the image because of its uncanny similarity to a painting by Edvard Munch. “I wonder if the cinematographer knew that?” asks Doig. “Or if it was something in the common consciousness? I wanted to take it back and turn it into a painting, so there is this circle effect.” For Doig, the most alluring direction is back to the future. El