Peter Doig

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through April 12

We’ve been hearing a lot lately that “beauty” has been returning to art. The word is so overused it conveys little meaning, yet I can’t help saying that Peter Doig’s 12 paintings and 15 works on paper at the Arts Club are among the most beautiful works I’ve seen in Chicago recently. His landscapes, most based on photographs he collected from the media or took himself, are almost delirious confections that hover between scenes from reality and mental images. The beauty in them is not an absolute but a tentative, momentary experience of surprise and delight, making them part of the most significant trend in contemporary art–the rejection of the artist as revealer of truth in favor of the artist as conveyor of the incompleteness of human knowledge and the fragility of all human constructions.

Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre (2002), the exhibition’s largest painting, at 117 inches wide, can be seen as a commentary on the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. In many Friedrichs two figures stand with their backs to us, looking toward a magical city or a distant sunset and leading the viewer’s eye toward a sublime elsewhere. In Doig’s painting two figures face us, and the walkway behind them leads us toward a seemingly infinite waterway and star-studded sky, then curves off to the right, away from that vastness. The painting is full of fuzzy and tentative smears of paint, yet the colored stones in the walkway walls are painted more precisely and with brighter colors than anything else, helping to direct our attention away from the mysterious background and toward the relatively banal human construction.

The colored patches of the walls could also be taken as a reference to the painter’s task, though in interviews Doig declares that his work is not “painting about painting.” He’s wise to separate himself from analytical and self-referential modernism, yet the modest metaphors for art making he sometimes includes are key to his meaning: he seems to see the painter less as a deliverer of revelation than as a craftsman pointing out the small beauties of the world.

Taking Friedrich’s iconography to the edge of kitsch, Doig stops just short of irony–because he believes in romance, using everything in his painter’s arsenal to give it new life. The stars in his evening sky are irregular shapes that almost magically suggest the twinkling of real stars. The two trees flanking the figure are painted as nearly transparent fields of color, and the painterly smears and drips in the foreground are another reference to painting itself. Doig’s willingness to mix three or four styles gives the painting its delicacy: each contrasts with the others, encouraging us to see that no one form of representation, no one way of seeing, is right–and that reality and our perceptions of it are unstable and worth celebrating in all their variety.

This notion is underscored by three 2002 works showing the same two figures as the painting. One work presents them as pale brown silhouettes, another as black-and-white line drawings, a third as detailed color cutouts. The three works bring out different aspects of the figures as they’re represented in the painting–making them mixes of line and color, detail and solid shapes, all floating in front of a mysteriously deep space.

Doig has said that he’s “trying to create something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words,” that his paintings are “totally nonlinguistic,” that he’s trying to create a “numbness.” The buildings in Road House (1991) don’t seem to be making a statement about culture or architecture, but like the colored stones in Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, their precise detail makes them stand out against the fantastical background–orange brown sky, bloblike clouds–and become oddly moving markers of human effort. In the foreground a roadway reflects trees as if it were a waterway, and its dark indistinctness also creates the feeling of an abyss that threatens the houses. A dark abstract band of bluish streaks and smears runs across the top of the painting’s sky–an alternative sky suggesting that there are multiple ways of seeing the work and underlining Doig’s point that no single style has special access to truth.

Doig, who was born in Scotland in 1959 and now lives in Trinidad, grew up partly in rural Quebec before attending art school in London, and he acknowledges the influence of Canadian landscape painter Tom Thomson, though many of Doig’s landscapes seem like fever dreams. “Some of my experience of the landscape as a teenager was under the influence of various forms of narcotics,” he says, adding that while he’s “not consciously trying to make ‘altered state’ paintings…I like the idea of the paintings being thought of as ‘hallucinations.'” Still, there’s nothing trippy about his paintings, and what makes them great is that his use of several styles in each intensifies the viewer’s perception of them by pushing us to compare details and wonder why he made each choice.

Doig often depicts nature as overwhelming, and balances that idea with mass-culture references, none of which is ever reduced to easy irony. The hooded sketcher in Figure in Mountain Landscape (1998) turns from us to face a swirl of colors, apparently sketching an abstraction that’s related stylistically to the background. The white lines in the figure and the topographic curves in the background suggest a paint-by-numbers picture, creating an endearing mix of the mundane and the sublime.

Other works suggest the power of nature even more strongly. Girl in White in Trees (2002) places a figure in a thicket of dark branches, her strange white color making her seem fragile, even angelic. That impression is heightened by the Milky Way shining through the trees–a potentially kitschy image, redeemed here by Doig’s conviction. The figure in the oil-on-paper Surfer (2002) seems dwarfed by the dark bands and drips of paint above him, and the burst of white at the top of the watercolor Driftwood (Yara) (2002) is almost blinding in contrast with the red blobs in it. Drips that blur the dark bottom of the painting appear to emanate from the light above, turning it into a kind of sun that alters everything around it.