When order meets chaos on the canvas

Thu, Dec 13, 2012, 00:00

The Mac's latest show features landscapes of power and a virtuoso installation, writes AIDAN DUNNE

When Charles Saatchi sold Peter Doig’s painting White Canoe for £5.7 million in 2007, it broke auction records for a work by a living European artist. The event was notable for a couple of other reasons as well.

One, Doig is a representational painter who came to prominence in Britain when the YBAs’ brand of Conceptual Art-lite had conquered the art world. And two, it was well known that the white canoe of the title was one of a series of paintings based on film stills from the original movie in the Friday the 13th horror franchise – an unlikely source for high art.

Doig routinely works from all manner of photographic images, anything from film stills to family snapshots by way of advertising brochures. There are often figures in his paintings, or signs of their presence, perhaps with little narrative hints, but he doesn’t tell stories. Rather, he taps into moods and atmospheres, such as the slightly ominous, even menacing air of the drifting canoe from Friday the 13th.

He said at one point that he’s not a great draughtsman and his paintings tend to support that view. Furthermore, he’s not a fluently assured painter either. Velazquez, for example, is renowned as a painter who produced works of extraordinary elegance with the minimal means: look closely at the surface of one of his works and you’re likely to ask yourself how he managed to produce the effect of a full, coherent image with just a few scant strokes of pigment.

Doig, on the other hand, revels in a kind of awkwardness in drawing and painting. Glance at one of the pictures in his current show Imaginary Places at The Mac and you’ll see a jumbled mass of paint that appears to be smeared, scraped, poured and even thrown in lumps at the canvas, as though he’s an Abstract Expressionist.

Yet somehow, out of the ungainly jumble, images take form. This is in keeping with his observation that painting is not really about an image per se, it’s about engaging you in the act of looking, about encouraging you to find your way across the surface of the picture and make sense of it.

His Canoe series is fascinating, so too is his Cabin series, one of which, Concrete Cabin, is on view at The Mac. The cabins are based on one of architect le Corbusier’s archetypal modernist housing projects at Briey-en-Forêt in France.

Doig came upon the run-down building when walking in the woods and then shot video footage to recreate the experience. The juxtaposition of the unruly sprawl of the forest with the geometric order of le Corbusier’s building, painted in white and primary colours, sets order against chaos, utopian planning against natural processes.

Although he was born in Edinburgh, within a few years Doig’s family had moved abroad. In his paintings, he often manages to combine aspects of the two dominant, contrasting environments in which he grew up: the hot, vibrant tropical colour of Trinidad (where he lives now), and the chill vastness of wintry Canada.

The latter is celebrated in his huge work, Ski Jacket, a dream-like evocation of a winter wonderland, featuring myriad overlapping spaces and perspectives. It was painted in London and is substantially based on memory and Canadian tourist brochures.

Emotional landscapes

One storey below in the Mac, Mary McIntyre’s A Contemporary Sublime complements Doig’s work well. She is concerned, for example, with how we look at images of landscape and see them in terms of inherited pictorial conventions, such as the Picturesque and the Romantic. She works with photography, and her photographs are juxtaposed with several paintings on loan, including an unusually stark LS Lowry and beautiful landscapes by Camille Corot and Jacob Van Ruisdael.

McIntyre is a Northern Irish artist, born in Coleraine and based in Belfast, and her work consists largely of an intensive visual exploration of her surroundings. The photographs on view are selected from the last 10 years or so.

In terms of landscape (not her exclusive subject matter overall), McIntyre is drawn to marginal spaces, urban, suburban and rural – these are peripheral, hardly noticeable pieces of terrain such as garden edges, boundary hedgerows, waste ground, infill and ragged shorelines.

Often, like Doig, she contrives to unsettle our habitual or formulaic reading of an image. Where he uses the manipulation of paint, she opts for obstacles to vision, shooting when a landscape is shrouded in mist, for example, or presenting us with an impenetrable wall of tangled vegetation, or catching a scene in a state of haphazard disarray.

The idea of disarray is central to what might be called her artistic dialogue with European landscape painting. If we think of a Picturesque or Romantic scene as a construction along the lines of an elaborate stage set, a carefully edited view that emphasises certain qualities and omits others, she is keen on showing us the joins, the frayed edges where the design comes undone and meets the “real” world.

In this she is perhaps offering a corrective to the Romantic personification of nature, what Ruskin termed the “Pathetic fallacy”. This doesn’t take away from the undoubted beauty of her images, incidentally, but it gives them quite a tough, abrasive edge.

Don’t miss out on Belfast-born Claire Morgan’s Gone to Seed in The Mac’s basement gallery space. In a virtuoso piece of sculptural installation, she visualises the dying fall of a bird through clouds of thistle seeds, captured in a frozen instant of time delivered with incredible poise and precision.

It’s easy to see why her work has been attracting enthusiastic attention internationally.

Imaginary Places by Peter Doig, A Contemporary Sublime by Mary McIntyre and Gone to Seed by Claire Morgan are at the Mac, 10 Exchange Street, Belfast until January 20th . themaclive.com

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