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Essay by John Russell Taylor


En plongee, the French Nouvelle Vague film-makers called it: that shot, so characteristic of the New Wave, taken from directly above, at once intimate, almost voyeuristic, an analytical, detached.  There is something intensely cinematic about it, or so one thinks. But why should it be? admittedly it is easier for a camera on a boom to get right above it's apparent subject and look down, in mercy or not as the case may be, than for a painter to suspend himself, plus easel, in the same sort of position.  But difficulties are there to be overcome, it is surprising that hardly any painter except Maxwell Doig has been moved to solve this particular problem.

But then, Doig has a highly distinctive vision, and obviously anything it requires of him for it's fullest expression, he will do.  His paintings, from whatever angle, are approached in a variety of ways, including sketching from the life just as any Old Master would have done, and the taking of multiple photographs.  In effect the photographs are used only as an extension of the sketchbook; the finished paintings are based on an amalgam of several photographs, supplemented and, as it were, corrected by reference to the drawings. 

This is what gives Doig's paintings there life and flexibility.  basing a painting with slavish closeness on just one photograph results, even disregarding the distortions inherent in adopting the camera's way of looking, in an oddly frozen deadened effect. That may be exactly what some painters want.  But not Doig.  He is interested in the life of his subjects, without dissipating their mystery.  Consequently, when he catches them "unawares" from above their faces are never wholly visible, and often not even partially.  They where hats against the midday sun, or turn their faces towards the dark, where the painters eye can readily follow them.

In a sense, the vertiginous point of view has an abstracting effect; the human form scene from directly above, becomes a pattern, however convincingly the illusion of three-dimensional presence is created.  (Hitchcock recognised this in his solitary venture into 3-D, Dial M for Murder, where the power of the technique is effectively reserved for analytical shots from above,rater that for throwing flames, water and confetti in the faces of viewers.)  But the abstracting effect is balanced by a curious intimacy; it is as though we, like the artist, are unseen spectators, spying on series of unguarded moments when the person under surveillance is caught-guard and completely unselfconscious.  This is art in a traditional form, but it belongs unmistakably to the world of the omnipresent CCCF camera.

If Doig's approach seems simple and direct his technique is unexpectedly complex, in ways not immediately apparent.  If the point of view tends to reduce the figural component of the painting to a pattern, it must be stressed that it is a different kind of pattern from that of the background against which they are placed.  The figures, as indicated, are intensely representational, the illusion of dimensionality being almost obsessively sought.  This is done by deployment of all the tricks in the traditional figurative painters book.  The backgrounds, however, are something else again. 

In most of the paintings in the current show even those featuring one man in a boat, the backgrounds are generally earth, beach or some kind of flooring.  (There are three in which the backgrounds, or surroundings if you will, are watery, but the same principle exactly applies.)  These also are patterns illusionistically created, and of course the two patterns, body and background, are fused into one pattern which represents the overall composition before us.  But the way the illusion is created for the background is quite different.

In this connection it become easy to understand why Doig cites as important influences on him Hopper, Wyeth, Rothko and Prunela Clough.  At first glance this seems a wildly varied and inconsistent list. It is interesting, in a British painter, that three of the four are American, especially since Doig has spent relatively little of his forty years in the United States.  Certainly, Hopper and Wyeth make instant sense as influences on Doig's work; that clearly applies to his treatment of the figure in his paintings.  Rothko he explains as drawing his attention to a particular range of dark reds and also emphasising the need for painterly backgrounds.

But where does the comparatively little known Clough come in?  Her influence is also concerned with the backgrounds, and particularly with Doig's characterisation of them as "painterly".  The figures of course are, in their own way, "painterly"; but in English the term generally caries the overtone of agitated surfaces, of paint worked on, worked over, worked up.  The creation and recreation of texture was something which much exercised Clough in her work, and likewise it excesses Doig.

What distinguishes his figures from their background, and helps to make them stand out, is whole business of texture.  Whereas the figures themselves are rendered in smooth and limped paint, the backgrounds are painted, and scratched, and scrapped off, and painted again, until a texture is achieved which no so much creates and illusion of the original as actually reproduces the original on canvas. (Though the comparison has quite possibly never occurred to Doig) one may find oneself not only of Clough, but also the Boyle Family, with their meticulous recreation of road surfaces and sand patterns in art.)

The art of Maxwell Doig is immediately recognisable as his, not only because of his very individual deployment of various painterly techniques, but also, primarily indeed, because of his distinctive vision. Such skill in purely representational painting is rare indeed these days, but one does not win the Villiers David Prize, as Doig did in 1997, for skill alone.  What makes Doig stand out, then and now is his vision   of life itself.  As he puts it, "In an age when everything is moving so fast, I'm interested in portraying stillness and quiet". And who, in the light of Vermeer and Hammershoi, can argue with that?  

John Russell Taylor 2006