Riley: 12 June – 14 September, 2008
Doig: (30 May – 7 September, 2008
11, avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris
53 67 40 00
In side by side exhibitions this summer at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, the reputations of two painters who have come out of a British context were aired before a French audience. Despite the considerable difference in age and ‘genre’ between Riley and Doig, their juxtaposition fruitful.
Riley, the older artist of the two, has achieved a central status not only as an abstract painter but as one who is identified as the op artist of post war pop culture. Black and white works such as Fall and Metamorphosis from the mid sixties use shape and line to create kinetic optical illusions. The picture plane is not a flat, stable, surface here but is curved and undulates in an illusion of movement as the eye moves across the canvas. Even though, at least to a British audience, the later colour work is familiar and highly acclaimed, the inclusion of her student work throws up some surprises. Post-Impressionism rather than Cubism engineered her relationship to abstraction. A group of early drawings are marked by the influence of Seurat, not as a pointillist but for his graphic chiaroscuro. The palpable product of this influence was her classic black and white optical paintings of the 1960s. The presence of Cézanne and Pissarro are also felt in the early paintings, particularly in the proto-divisionist brush work of landscapes made as a student which look forward to the later colour paintings like in the High Sky series. Riley’s link to Seurat bought to mind Duchamp’s interest in the same artist. For Duchamp, the pointillist project created a circuit of spectatorship where the viewer activates the work, with the final mix made in the eye and in the act of beholding the work so that the spectator puts the painting to work.
A sense of profound relationship to several modernist challenges was the overwhelming impact of this exhibition. That she has been able to sustain an engagement with painting in terms of particular objectives and limits is the major achievement here. Subsequent series maintained her ambition, looking fresh today, not only as paintings but as conceptual devices. A room of preparatory sketches and drawings was very informative as to how the works are produced (or performed) in their transitions from schematic ideas, on ruled paper, to robust painterly objects where the optical phenomena are integrated into a relationship with the painting’s physical structure.
Peter Doig’s engagement with painting appears to be very different. From an early image of a long distance truck traversing a landscape to images of paradise in the later paintings, it is possible to tick the boxes that set up Doig as a latter-day romantic negotiating an ever-shifting relationship between the figure and landscape. Yet this seems to be just half the story and at times even a subtext. The snow paintings like ‘Blotter’ in the middle section of the exhibition tend toward a lyricism which feel somewhat simplistic, in contrast to the work in the opening and later sections in which a conjunction of painterly qualities and their impact as images saw Doig at his best. The series of paintings made after a visit to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation apartments in Briey-en-Forêt in France is an intriguing set of images producing readings that for me, mark Doig out as having invented within a genre.Here, he is not just simply carrying the transcendental flag to the next post.Concrete Cabin I and Concrete Cabi II from 1991-1992 foreground a forest. The eye moves through the dark traceries of branches and foliage to the white façade of the Unité in the background, reflecting bright sunlight in its woodland clearing. Qualities of light and dark transform into shifts of readings across an axis of nature and culture. Nature here is not a simplistic trope but is put into tension with the Unité. The forest does not overcome the ‘cabin’, or vice-versa, instead they both find their place in the compostion. Similarly the later works show a spareness of execution and a sense of image that pulls him clear of the clichés he was slipping into in the mid nineties. The ghosts that haunt Doig’s work , besidesVuillard and Bonnard who are obvious touchstones, include Gauguin and Matisse. Matisse comes through particularly in the lightness of touch of works such as ‘Man dressed as a Bat’ where countless erasures linger under the surface and where there is a hard-won graphic resolution.
Seeing these two painters successfully sustaining the echoes of a modernity marked by Post-Impressionism, yet with such dramatically different results, was both surprising and instructive, coming as they do, from opposite poles of representation and abstraction. Doig as the younger artist potentially has much time before him to develop and transform this already impressive body of work. However with Riley there is in addition, the sense that she may astound us with something more – as unexpected and yet as conclusive as the late works of Monet or Matisse who like her, gradually built up a body of work reflecting a life time of research and application to a practice.print