A lion with a blue-plumed pirate hat, an obsidian nude with her face blacked out, a mysterious rider on horseback — the settings and characters in Peter Doig’s newest paintings, now on view at Michael Werner Gallery, are at once strange and somehow totally familiar, like scenes from myths or dreams. Some recall hypnagogic states, fragments of surreal imagery that flood the mind just before the onset of sleep. Others resemble portals to another dimension, like sections of the pristine Upper East Side gallery’s walls have been peeled back to reveal Narnia-like alternate realities.
This enchanting effect heightens the longer you look at each painting; new details and figures emerge from the shadows. In “Rain in the Port of Spain (White Oak),” if you look carefully, you’ll see the dark silhouette of a man’s face in the barred window of the green door. In “Horse and Rider,” a small, black ship looming on the horizon comes into focus. In “Night Studio (STUDIOFILM & RACQUET CLUB),” you can literally see evidence of the painter’s hand: five fingerprints smudge a column of white paint.
“Night Studio” is the most modern of the paintings in this series — the character in the foreground wearing a baggy blue t-shirt and what look like Stan Smith sneakers is the closest to a pop culture reference you’ll find in this show. The painting’s composition appears abstract at first; it takes a second to register that the fingerprinted white column depicts the back of a canvas leaned against a wall. On this rendering of an unused canvas, there’s a partial sketch of a nude, an unfinished doodle of a city street. On another painted canvas, a silhouette resembles the shadow of the man in the foreground. This painting of paintings is the densest and most meta work in the show, an outlier, but manages to reference itself as art without coming across as too heady or pedantic.
When Doig returns to his best-known motif, the canoe, it’s as mysterious and evocative as ever, not a bit hackneyed. In “Spearfishing,” a man in a blindingly orange diving suit stands holding a spear in an emerald-green canoe, accompanied by a haunting seated figure in a golden cloak. The composition references a figurative take on Rothko’s abstract color fields; the canoe and its reflection are rendered in simple, super-saturated curved stripes, and the dark sky and water in swaths of cobalt and indigo. It could be a scene from a dark modern fairytale.
All too rare in the modern art world is Doig’s lack of pretense, his embrace of vibrant color and the physicality of paint, and his childlike wonder. His paintings hit you on a gut level and don’t need to be justified with highfalutin concepts, art historical references, jargony artist statements, or Emperor’s New Clothes-style rhetoric. He’s the perfect antidote to the Koons-ification of the commercial art industry, which threatens to crush itself to death with a clone army of “balloon dogs.”