When Michael Werner opened this show of Peter Doig’s early paintings and works on paper at his Manhattan gallery late last year, London art lovers came down with that rarest of afflictions – city envy. In part because Doig, painter of lush, mysterious (and famously expensive) landscapes cut his creative teeth at London’s best art schools. This transfer, then, to Werner’s Mayfair space is a welcome homecoming. But it’s not exactly a revelation. Despite the ‘early’ of the title, these aren’t the fevered jottings of adolescence (though there’s a lovely diaristic drawing in which Doig laments his premature hair loss). Nor are they proof of a born genius. The bulk of the work on show comes from the mid-1980s, when the artist, then in his mid-twenties, was studying hard for his BA at Central Saint Martins.
The show is a snapshot of an extraordinarily fertile period. Incandescently ambitious, Doig criss-crosses the Atlantic in search of inspiration, coming up with images of cowboys, the Manhattan skyline, ancient gods (from the National Gallery) and boozy Covent Garden nights, all sewn together in styles that recall the big guns of the era – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and AR Penck – along with artists who were all the rage at the time but aren’t much thought about today, such as Rainer Fetting and Malcolm Morley. With their scattershot references and busy surfaces, Doig’s monumental paintings wind up looking overcooked. He’s better on paper, where his laidback line suits his stream-of-consciousness subject matter.
Doig’s work starts to get really interesting when it stops resembling the sort of thing a switched-on student might make (switched-on students take note). Like ‘At the Edge of Town’ (1986-’88, pictured), which takes on a strange, dematerialised atmosphere all of its own. It’s a style Doig perfected during the next couple of years. In fact, the show might better be called ‘Peter Doig: BC’ – before Chelsea College of Art and Design, from which Doig emerged in 1990 with an MA, fully formed as the painter we revere today.