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Essay by David
Boyd Haycock

Essay by David
Boyd Haycock


In the Studio


2023  Catalogue Foward by Patrick Duffy

The paintings of Maxwell Doig are far more complex than is first apparent. They are the product of a combination of the artist’s inherent skills, the rich lineage of drawing through careful observation and a visionary perspective in visual art that finds its roots in the Romantic Age. Their unique brilliance lies in Doig’s delicate and subtle handling of his subjects within the given limits of his canvas, a combination of personal reflection and the technical invention of which is so idiosyncratic to his practice of marrying what is real and what is invented, drifting seamlessly between what is observed and what is remembered. Ontologically speaking, they question simple scenes taken from everyday life, interpreting both common and unusual subjects on a modest scale that relate a first-person account of the artist’s lived experience.

Doig is often spoken of in terms of the late artist David Blackburn (1939 – 2016) who was both a great friend and mentor to him as a young man. Blackburn instructed Doig in what he calls the ‘modernist tradition’ of draftsmanship, of cautiously ordered representational drawing, which emphasises structure and form above all else. To those who are familiar with Blackburn they will recognise his intense colour-field works in pastel that are often described in terms of visual metaphors for the world around us. They are carefully constructed to inform the viewer of the world that extends beyond the picture plane, and this is potentially the most important element of Blackburn’s influence on Doig. Despite his tutelage, as well as his time spent at the Slade School of Art, for the most part Doig considers himself a self-taught painter, as it developed separately once the fundamentals of drawing had been secured.

Amongst his own classic influences are the Victorian artists John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836 – 1893) – also self-taught - who had a similar, almost obsessive eye for detail, as did the much less known Hedley Fitton (1858 – 1929) whose etchings of street scenes would go on to inform Doig’s own practice as a printmaker. ‘They were brilliant draftsmen,’ he says, ‘before they could paint, they could draw. First and foremost.’ So too was James McNeill Whistler (1834 –1905) whose book of etchings was a familiar references tool which he kept in his studio as a young artist. Either in Fitton’s quotidian street scenes, Grimshaw’s moon-lit landscapes, or Whistler’s dramatic Nocturnes, atmosphere and an intense enthusiasm for illustrating life and its surface texture in detail, are key to how we relate to them.

Doig is well known for his own ambient representations of buildings, boats and ruins, which often reflect his concerns about mankind’s relationship with the landscape, and the dynamic effects of time that are amplified when a building loses its purpose. This feeling is experienced in pictures like Moorland House in Winter (2) which reflects a sort of northern gothic drama that augments itself through the contrast of the natural landscape and the characteristics of Doig’s subjects, whether a building, boat or otherwise. These are romantic images inspired by common subjects which makes them disarmingly familiar to the viewer. Like pages torn from the book of life.

There is a quasi-surrealism which inhabits his pictures, that slowly reveals itself once the initial seduction has passed, and you find yourself in a state of somnambulism, journeying backwards through your own memories and traces of days out in the country, summer holidays on the coast, or showery Saturday afternoons visiting distant relatives.  This feeling of fragmentation is created by the unusual framing devices Doig often employs in his pictures.  In this sense he is very Whistlerian in the structuring his paintings and prints. Like Whistler, he is not afraid to bisect the picture plane with strong verticals and horizontal elements (Fal Oyster Boat, Mylor Harbour (4)), exaggerate the play of light and shadow (Lighthouse with Morning Shadows, Flamborough Head II (9)) or close crop his subjects (Southwold Rooftops II (29). Much like a photograph will capture elements of objects that extend outside the lens’ reach, these components provide us with a sense of what lies beyond the canvas. He has the ability to express a complete image in only a few dissonant notes, much like a fragmented memory, hence the feeling of distant familiarity in his work.

His own understanding of his subjects comes from close observation, from studying them in person, by water or by land, often camping out with them and coexisting in their own terrain. For his most recent collection of works he has turned his attention to the Cornish and Devon coast, to Newton Ferrers and Fowey and where the Percuil River meets the sea at St Mawes. He was directed there by David Messum who suggested that his particular painting style could liberate the Cornish light in a way that had previously been adapted to elucidating his Northern, post-industrial landscapes. It was new territory for Doig in more ways than one. Barring a brief trip as a child, the encounter with his Cornish subjects last summer was a new one.  ‘It isn’t Northern at all!’ he reflected, comparing it to his home county. ‘Yorkshire is much danker and darker in tone.’ He had known full well of the artistic tradition of plein air painting associated with Cornwall but had not yet been quite ready to make the pilgrimage.

It seems he was not yet prepared for the intense clarity of the elements that make up the landscape and coastal scenery of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but he does not disappoint. His paintings of the quayside in Noss Mayo (7 and 18) form stunning visual essays in how Doig is able to demonstrate the shifting narrative between the surface textures of stone, wood and water. They delicately balance with each picture being divided by the horizontal parallelism of the quay, broken up here and there by old tyres to offset the formalism. This is also represented in his pictures of Newton Ferrers (22 and 25) in which the hard graphic elements of the manmade structures are softened by the reflective surface of the water. It is apparent that Doig was drawn to these textures, and the relationship they share with one another, well before the clarity of light, sky and water revealed themselves to him. Textural and topographical accuracy are the details that make his pictures believable.

His Cornish and Devon subjects are a combination of his previous achievements on his painting trips to Flamborough (17), Whitby (26) and Southwold (29). Now however, the architecture is not simply set in isolation, exposed to the sky, relying on the changing weather to dictate the mood. The temperament of these pictures is much more concerned with the built environment in direct communion with nature. As a result, the natural elements almost take on an architecture of their own.  St. Anthony Lighthouse (13) may be the finest example of this. With the lighthouse as its primary focus, Doig moves seamlessly from water, to stone, to grass, to sky, perfectly demonstrating Doig’s ability to coalign hard-edged manmade geometry with the delicate elements of the natural landscape.

In one way or another all of the pictures in this exhibition manage to capitalise on their dualistic properties, whether it is found in their atmosphere, subject matter, or in Doig’s unique technique. Informed by both modern and classical reference points, he possesses what David Blackburn once described as his own visual language and mythology: a vocabulary which continues to emerge organically with each successive picture.

Patrick Duffy, 2023