The colossal canvases currently filling eight upper rooms in the Scottish National Gallery are deceptive. With exotic landscapes and shimmering figures that tower over the onlooker in vibrant hues, the exhibition feels alien amongst Scotland’s crags. The title No Foreign Lands seems a conceit. Yet this retrospective of Peter Doig is intimately connected with Scottish nationality, and the idea of nationality and belonging more generally, as, despite the feeling of otherness exuding from his paintings, Doig is a born Scot. This show is in fact a homecoming.
However, it is clear that it is not Doig’s birthplace but the birthplace of these works that has influenced the artist most greatly; Trinidad’s tropical climate is infused in these paintings. The rich colours that make Doig’s palm trees pulsate before the eyes are drawn from the sights before Doig’s eyes for the last decade, as he returned to the country that he first saw as a toddler and apparently long lingered in his artistic imagination.
These paintings linger in the imagination. They demand to be noticed in their grandeur and seem almost destined to haunt the mind due to their uncanny mix of vivid hues and ghostly textures. The paint is often thick – giving the giant works an extra dimension of weight and physicality. Yet they are also hazy, with some appearing mere shadows or water stains. Somehow they are both bold and ethereal; striking and yet intangible.
In one memorable piece, Man Dressed As A Bat (2007), an eery presence with outstretched wings looms above the viewer. The paint is gauzy and fine – brushstrokes are clearly visible – and the entire effect is shadowy and uncertain. Without the title we are unsure if this is man or animal, butterfly or monster, beauty or menace. Many of Doig’s paintings seem to hover somewhere in between dream and nightmare – characters emerge from emerald undergrowth, featureless, or are just too far away to fully grasp.
Doig has created works that are not easy to pin down – like the internationally roaming artist they are not rooted, but seem to shift. The initial apparent conceit of the show’s title is actually ideal when placed within its quotation (from Robert Louis Stevenson – so there is some Scottish inspiration): “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”. The viewer is made to feel like a traveller, being offered glimpses into imaginary realms.