Imaginary Places

Once the most expensive living painter, Peter Doig's 'difficult and complicated' paintings brighten up The MAC

Peter Doig’s paintings are never anything but paintings. His approach seems as much about the application and manipulation of paint on canvas as it is to do the image being depicted.

His works revel in seemingly random, anti-naturalistic gobbets of paint, present as much for the joy of the medium’s plasticity as its endless manipulative possibilities and its ultimate physicality; its surface broken with a splayed, drying brush, its tangibility.

'Window Pane', a view of lilies on a pond or puddle, has this superficial, plastic quality, studded with raised lumps of paint like discarded bottle-tops, the muted sprout greens and rhubarb pinks both natural and unnatural.

'Concrete Cabin' meanwhile shows a block of Modernist flats glimpsed through menacing, encroaching trees. What look like sun-flares from the source photographs are re-imagined here as hungry caterpillar bites, crisp and round and white against the chocolaty red of the trees.

'Ski Jacket', the largest canvas on show in this very large room, takes up most of one gallery wall, a default centrepiece, and again studded with nodules of thick creamy paint, depicts a Breugelesque Christmas landscape. But it’s Breugel on a bender: the figures stark against the snow but blurred, unnaturally colourful, like discarded baubles from the enormous Christmas tree.

Doig was, briefly, Europe’s most expensive living painter, when Charles Saatchi sold his painting 'White Canoe' at Sothebys in 2007 for £5.7m, a figure that reportedly left the painter 'nauseated', the inflated price-tag symptomatic of an art world gone mad. And this is difficult and complicated art. His paintings and etchings are gnomic and elusive, endlessly mysterious and demand repeat investigation.

'Canoe Lake'

 

There are plenty of canoes here; they’re all over his etchings. 'Lurker' presents a silhouetted fisherman standing in his boat, line taut to the bile yellow water, his chest pierced by the distant horizon.

'Canoe Lake' (above) presents another figure in another canoe, head resting on the side of the boat, an arm dragging listlessly in the water. It is famously based on a still from the film Friday the 13th but the atmosphere owes little to the visceral shock of a slasher film.

The picture is charged with a quite different intensity, the sky a crepuscular orange, the distant forest like struts holding back the fire of the sky. On the far shore squats a lifeless house and above it, fabulously, what appears to be a giant heron, its long beak trailing into the water behind the exhausted figure.

'Figure in a Mountain Landscape' shows a peculiar, hobbledy-hoy character, barrel bodied and legless, wearing a witch’s hat. It seems half turned towards us, its face a Rorschach test that the brain is obliged to provide features for. It looks caught out, rumbled, against the sculpted mountains behind it, discovered on its way to a sabbatical on bare mountain.

'Blotter', finally, is an etching and aquatint that shows a single figure with a bandaged head and patched knee, his head bowed and fiddling with his flies. He stands in water, reflections, never quite of him, ribboning out beneath him like the sounds waves emanating from the deafened skull in Munch’s 'The Scream'.

Doig's etchings are scratchy, delicate and linear: 'sketches for pond life' striated with lines like a ploughed field. A black, oppressive landscape blurs into the middle distance and every line is flat and furry. It is unreadable and bears constant re-reading. It keeps pulling you back in.

Imaginary Places runs in the Upper Gallery of The MAC until January 20, 2013.