When you drive through Toronto’s northeastern suburbs on the Don Valley Parkway, your eye is momentarily caught by a marginal flash of garish colour in the grass beside the six-lane highway. Someone, long ago, has painted a crude rainbow on the entrance of a lonely pedestrian underpass, a sad and fading trace of desperate humanity on this unwelcoming slab of nature.
For the past several weeks, this most tellingly Canadian scene, entitled Country Rock, has been a source of fascination to hundreds of thousands of people across the pond in London, England. That suburban Toronto touchstone, glimpsed from a passing truck in 1994 and rendered across a huge canvas in watery stripes of lurid oil, is visible everywhere in London these days: on posters and lamp-post banners, on catalogue covers, in big spreads published in every newspaper.
It serves as an invitation to step inside a vision of man and nature that can only have been forged in the Canadian experience, in which the weight of wilderness overwhelms the viewer.
Just as Turner was dazzled a century and a half ago by the industrial-gas sunsets on the banks of the Thames, today’s Europeans are experiencing a similar shock of painterly discovery in the ravine behind the high school, in the police car pulling up to the lake behind the cottage, on that awful stretch of Highway 401 between Montreal and Toronto.
Peter Doig has turned these slush-encrusted visions of the Canadian periphery into the continent’s biggest art sensation. The Tate’s current 25-year retrospective of his works has become the most talked-about exhibition in London, receiving pure adulation from the art press and the mass media.
What are people seeing here? Why are the British critics calling him the 21st-century Turner, the Winslow Homer of the postwar years? On one level, you realize, it is simply great painting, not just technically but as pure, exciting narrative: Doig has an uncanny skill in grabbing you by the shoulders and pointing you at a scene of almost cinematic intensity; his canvases give you the sense that something is about to happen just beyond the edge, just below that weird smear of pink paint in the snowstorm, just as soon as the slouched-over guy finishes walking across the half-frozen pond.
You can talk about his influences – there is, in his dazzling oils, a lot of the stripped-down ponds and pathways of David Milne, the sky explosions of Paterson Ewen and a good swath of the jazzed-up nature of Monet and Lawren Harris, and, since he moved to Trinidad in 2002, some sunnier vibes of Paul Gauguin’s mystery visitors, who populate the edges of tropical lakes that seem every bit as alienating as the Canadian ones of the 1990s.
But you cannot get away from the very singular set of things that he is painting. There are many canoes on many lakes here, but these are not the transcendent, welcoming lakes of Tom Thomson. The boats seem lost, the lakes cruel. There are a lot of people standing on frozen ponds, examining the ground below them, leaving you unsure where they start and it ends. There are buildings that always seem to be in the process of being devoured, the scary banality of nature exposing the futility of architecture.
Sadness, Doig once said, is “a pervasive mood in the work,” and this is the sadness of the median strip, the sadness of the need to hitchhike in the snow. “A lot of the work deals with peripheral or marginal sites, places where the urban world meets the natural world,” he told one interviewer. “Where the urban elements almost become, literally, abstract devices … a lot of the paintings portray a sense of optimism that can often be read as being a little desperate, like the image of a rainbow painted around the entrance to an underpass.”
Many of us had believed, until now, that these were very private sort of things experienced by a small clan of people living north of the 49th parallel, incomprehensible to outsiders. For Europeans, Canada was represented by those Emily Carr visions of a benign and spiritually engaging nature, or perhaps by Harris’ rows of simple shacks against a big forest – nature that wanted you in it.
It took someone like Scottish-born Doig, to tell the world something far truer about the Canadian relationship with nature. It is always there on the edge, threatening to overthrow us.
Without that rainbow-stencilled underpass, it would all be leafy hell.
Peter Doig runs at Tate Britain in London until April 27, after which the exhibition travels to Paris and Frankfurt, Germany.
Globe and Mail review
Images: Country Rock, Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like?), White Canoe