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Essay by Lynne Green

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In the Studio


The silence of Solitude: the vision of Maxwell Doig

I believe the role of the artist is to transform the ordinary, the everyday, the common place. Which is why I choose old walls, denim jeans, blankets, figures reading & worn surfaces. Maxwell Doig*

Since the late 1980s the solitary human figure, be it male or female, has been central to Maxwell Doig’s art. Initially – in a series of mixed-media  prints – the figures were generic, simplified, bordering on the abstract and without the delineation of character.  Drawn in dramatic relation to objects as big as themselves (a rowing boat and its oars), or caught in vigorous activity (hanging by fingers and toes, climbing a pole, walking on stilts), these images convey a precarious sense of balance, making them poignant metaphors for the human condition. Doig’s interest lay in the (extreme or awkward) dynamic of the physical pose, expressive of the pliability of the human body in contrast to the rigid, fixed geometries of the objects with which the figures engaged.  Tellingly, at this early stage in his career, the artist recognised the importance of his sensing the pose in his own body: for [he says] “somehow the drawing would be more convincing because it was more felt” (the italics are mine).** This physical (and thus empathetic) identification with his subject may be a key to the artist having achieved, as his work developed and matured, a deepening sense of authenticity: a genuine originality and potency. Having embraced the figurative during a period when the visual arts favoured the abstract, the conceptual and a range of new media, Doig has achieved a distinctive voice in the depiction of the human figure. It is no easy task to bring something fresh and vital to a painterly tradition that has its roots in the Renaissance and its rediscovery of Classical art. There is no doubt, however, that over the last decade Doig has produced art of arresting vision and virtuosity.

The connection that comes most immediately to mind when I contemplate Maxwell Doig’s is with Early Italian Renaissance painting of the fifteenth century – in particular with Masaccio (famed for the realism of his figures and tautness of his line) and Piero della Francesca (mathematician and painter of strict geometries, balanced by a genius for colour and pattern). Doig himself admires the economy, elegance and clarity of Florentine painting of this period: three qualities fundamental to his own creative vision.  He refers also to the example of the Northern, Netherlandish Renaissance tradition of Jan van Eyck. The Belgian and his contemporaries achieved a brilliance of paint surface – a luminosity of colour – unlike anything that had gone before. At the same time there was (in both southern and northern European art) a conceptual breakthrough in the realisation that colour (thus form) could not be fully articulated without also expressing light and shadow. The importance in Maxwell Doig’s art of shadow and its corollary light cannot be overstated. In the past he has exploited the drama of Chiaroscuro (extreme contrasts of light and dark) to explore the human figure in new and revelatory ways. In the sequence of paintings in this exhibition, of a young woman standing in profile, the intensity of light is conveyed in the contrasting depth of the figure’s shadow: itself a strong formal element that also accentuates the whiteness of the wall behind. The shadow of course is a projection of the figure’s stance, in a sense an extension of it: while in Figure with Accordion in Profile it seems almost to have morphed into a personage in its own right.

Naturally, the artist-exemplars to whom Doig is attracted reflect his personal preoccupations as a painter. The centrality of light in his own work has echoes, for example, in the seventeenth century church interiors of Pieter Jansz Saenredam (who repeatedly depicted natural light flooding vast, architecturally complex spaces). It is the Dutchman’s sparse white walls and exquisite expression of utter stillness that Doig identifies with too. The portraits and cool, silent interiors of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi  (1864-1916), carry a similar echo of shared values. Doig is masterly in the conjuring of light from his acrylic medium: light that literally appears to emanate from his painstakingly painted canvases. He favours what he describes as, “dirty white backgrounds with shadows going across them. I like the way these throw light back out of the paintings”. (Black on the other hand “absorbs energy, helps to describe the figure”.) In this new body of work the light is subtle and deliberately unforced, natural: influenced by Doig’s love of the sea-reflected light – and pale, warm surfaces and bleached colours that result – along Yorkshire’s East Coast.

In the twentieth century Doig’s interest is in painters such as the American Winslow Homer (1836-1910): in particular his watercolours (radiant with both colour and light), of single figures set against heroic landscape or majestic seas. The solitary figure lies also at the heart of Andrew Wyeth’s work: the archetypal American figurative painter who died only in 2009. His expanses of silent prairie, figures caught in extra-ordinary poses, and starkly lit, deeply shadowed white interiors, all have relevance for Doig: they reveal common cause and shared painterly concerns. But perhaps above all the artist recognises a fellow spirit in Wyeth’s obsessive attention to the rendering of detail. Doig’s meticulous translation of surfaces and textures is extraordinary and one of the sensual delights of his work: the weft and weave of a coat’s heavy worsted – with a delicate blue line, only half glimpsed as we catch its flicker; the fine weave of denim that we rarely give thought to; the pleated detail of a cotton shirt; the texture of a woollen blanket (its slightly stiff contours pulled across the human form). His approach to the texture and patina of things – the pattern of flaking, decaying walls, worn floors, battered and rusted corrugated iron – is to recreate rather than to illustrate: to make them actual.  The process is a reductive one – that Doig likens to sculpting – of applying layers of paint, then abrading, eroding and scraping them back: to reveal as in a palimpsest, what lies beneath. It is a painterly equivalent to the effects of wind and weather, usage and the passage of time.

In subject matter, Doig has strayed little from his early engagement with the solitary figure, though rather than the acrobatic contortion of the body, his concern has increasingly been with the silent and static figure at rest. As a consequence perhaps of his search for silence and stasis, his figures have become sculptural in their solidity and sense of permanence, monumental in the intensity of their presence. I think again of the Early Florentine masters, the balance and symmetry of their compositions. The artist’s early focus on the juxtaposition of the human body (its soft contours and flexibility), with the geometric (the hard symmetries of objects), has evolved through a prolonged sequence of paintings, in which figures lie or lounge on an upturned boat, or against the formal pattern of tiled floors and wooden jetties. In this current group of work, the geometric counterpoint to the human is provided by a domestic chair (albeit an art deco one), a stepladder, or whitewashed floorboards. The backgrounds and surfaces against which the figures are set are created on the canvas as he paints: their source in sequences of his own photographs, in preparatory sketches and painted studies (that are often developed into finished paintings in their own right).

As his work has evolved, so his depiction of the human form has become increasingly specific, startlingly realistic and finely observed. The detail of his depiction is the result not only of his obvious delight in the nature of stuff (in surfaces and textures, in fabric and skin, in the commonplace materials with which we engage), but also of his increasing mastery of his media and painterly techniques. One senses Doig testing himself, stretching both imagination and skill: addressing the problems and limitations of painting itself. In the past his subjects’ features have been obscured by a cap, a newspaper or as a consequence of his chosen viewpoint. Through unexpected, often startling vantage points (that present the figure as a set of unfamiliar shapes); and through diverse poses and staging (including an exploration of the distortions of form seen through water), Doig has set himself to explore the human body in all its variety and complexity of form. In so doing, the essential beauty, the profound humanity of his models (and thus of us all) is revealed.

These are real people, not professional models or invented figures: they are family and friends, or the artist himself. Given the calm and ordered quietude of his paintings, it makes sense that Doig chooses to work with people that, like him, are essentially tranquil. Identifying his subjects by their personal energy, he is drawn to those who are self-contained and comfortable in their own bodies. They are introspective, at peace with themselves. Perhaps that is what we find so compelling.  He would not the artist says, paint the over active, the larger than life, forceful characters amongst us. The poses he favours now are relaxed rather than contrived, in the main assumed naturally (out of habit or for comfort) by his subject rather than by himself. Rarely active, Doig’s characters are more often at rest, silently absorbed in solitary pursuits. In the current sequence of images of a young woman, her features are (unusually) revealed to us, with an accompanying sense of individuality and intimacy: as she balances on a step-ladder, sits or stands on one leg to read a book, or is lost in the idleness of reverie. Even when caught in the act of playing an accordion, one senses a contemplative pause. These paintings have a new tenderness: markedly so in Sleeping Figure Under a Blanket I.

In their spirit Maxwell Doig’s paintings have much in common with the tableau vivant, literally a ‘living picture’, whose origin lies in medieval church liturgical dramas: where a significant event was given physical expression by real people assuming silent, motionless attitudes. Later, tableaux vivants were popular in the imitation of paintings or sculpture, while the invention of photography allowed a proliferation of the form that continues today. Doig’s staging of small yet significant moments within an individual life speaks directly to us. The stasis and quietude of these images, the absorption of the figures in ordinary self-referential pursuits, presents us with a way to respond to the seemingly relentless demands we face each day.

Doig’s intense scrutiny of the world, the sensitivity of his interpretation and articulation of its richness and variety, is startling in its veracity and bravura. This is painting that requires of us considered attention. It repays time spent: in order to discover its qualities and its secrets. The artist’s transformation of the everyday is based on a profound concern with the human condition. While they are real people, his figures transcend the specifics of identity to become emblematic and allegorical: symbolic of us all. In our increasingly frenetic lives, Maxwell Doig offers us a rare opportunity to take the  “time to stand and stare”.***

Lynne Green, 2015
Art Writer and Critic

*Note to author January 2015
**In conversation with Andrew Stewart, Maxwell Doig Early Works from the David ***Blackburn Collection, exhibition catalogue, 108 Gallery, Harrogate 2012
With due acknowledgement to W.H. Davies’ poem Leisure from his collection Songs of Joys and Others (1911)