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Maxwell Doig          disegno and a sense of decorum

Maxwell Doig is an artist in mid-career whose work has attracted critical attention since his first solo exhibitions in the early 1990s. There is broad agreement about specific aspects of his practice among a number of commentators and critics, testament to the quality and consistency of his output; these include his skilful deployment of materials and techniques, the focussed range of his subject matter and the relevance of the work of other artists, chiefly painters, some obvious and some less so, as visual stimuli.

His mastery of materials and techniques places him in a painterly tradition associated with the Renaissance and particularly with Florentine painters of the quattrocento. But what do we mean when we draw comparisons with Piero Della Francesca, Fra Angelico or other fresco-painting followers of Giotto? On one level it is recognition of quality and a stamp of approval together with an acceptance of the standards of naturalism achieved by the figure sculptors of the ancient world, seen as the norm of classical beauty against which other figurative art is judged. Doig’s carefully ordered compositions, often with a strong vertical emphasis, certainly share a concern with atmosphere and space, and the effects of light on surfaces evident in the artists mentioned above. Where he differs, however, is in his subject matter. Independent single figures, with the exception of studies for larger compositions, the emerging genre of portraiture and figures of saints in altarpieces, are rare in the Renaissance, apart from in sculpture with which Doig’s work has some similarity. Perhaps there is a link here with the depiction of saints and their attributes, facilitating recognition, a system of identification - in Doig’s recent painting we have books, newspapers, a blanket, an accordion - in parallel with the attributes of Renaissance saints.

Doig’s early work was not exclusively of single figures – not always alone or self-contained - unlike his recent work in which the image contains the figure entirely. Often the figure is engaged in some form of work or tension, of industrial process or task, on one occasion observed by the figure of the artist himself (Self-portrait drawing Textile Worker, 1996). These actions seem to be without obvious reward or end product bringing to mind William Morris’s ‘useless toil’, as opposed to useful work, and Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods forever to roll a rock to the top of the mountain where it would fall back to the bottom. Doig’s Figure Carrying a Rock, 1996, illustrates this punishment of futile and hopeless labour. 

 

 

The critic John Russell Taylor has commented on the cinematic quality of the view from above adopted in his early work, in other compositions later in his career and still evident in his latest work shown in 2015. Here the figures are no longer engaged in struggle or tension but in some form of solitary activity, of leisure or reverie – reading or sleeping. This represents a move from an interest in the active to the passive, avoiding the risk of narrative or of illustration. The exception, in terms of subject matter, are the increasing number and importance of studies of derelict buildings and industrial structures examined with the same focus on texture and the play of light as the features of his figures, recalling the post-industrial context of his environment, and echoing the subjects of his early work.

It is clear that Doig’s single figure studies are not portraits in the accepted sense, and although his work features a number of recognisable subjects, his models drawn from family and friends, his aim is not to achieve a ‘likeness’ in a traditional way. Unidentified further, although recognisable from image to image, they are simply ‘figures’. It has been asserted that his subjects are, otherwise, emblematic and allegorical, emotionally cool and lacking emotion or tension, never meeting our gaze. A philosophical reading might emphasise their self-contained nature, and even alienation – anonymous if untroubled – that raises aspects of the modern human condition as expressed in existentialism: detachment from the world and other people. If Doig’s figures are alone in the world they appear to possess the quality of self-reliance. The avoidance of the conventions of portraiture, in terms of a lack of a system of identification or of visual characteristics gives them a pre-Renaissance quality of disinterestedness and unworldly decorum.

The fundamental achievements of the Renaissance are established and recognised by critics and art historians, particularly the ability of artists in respect to the challenges of naturalism and the representation of the natural world implicit in the recovery of the standards and techniques of the classical past and its canon of classical beauty. Together with innovations such as single point perspective, these include the rise of the artist from craftsman to creative personality with imagination and intellect. It is still crucial to our concept of the role of the artist and to what we imagine is the social function of art. The Renaissance was responsible for the idea of art, expressed in theoretical writing of the period, in Alberti and Vasari for example, and it gave us a systematic approach to representation to which Doig is an heir. This is also reflected in the concept of disegno, although translatable as simply drawing and in the Florentine context seen in opposition to Venetian colore, it is applicable to all aspects of the visual arts and design; a recognition of technical ability but also all-embracing in its relevance to the idea of representation and how it works. Disegno is an essential element in making better, more effective, illusions.

Doig generates his imagery through various visual means, including photography, printmaking and drawing; his drawings and other works on paper are only rarely studies for finished paintings, and are finished works in their own right. Printmaking is an important process for him, and formed an important part of his art school training as well as his continuing practice as a painter, reflecting his methodical attitude and concern for materials and techniques. The artist has recognised the element of risk-taking in printmaking processes and values the opportunities to generate accidental marks exploiting them in his drawing and painting. An early lithograph Skeleton in a Burial Pot of 1989 features several aspects of his later paintings – the view from above, the circular composition and focus on the whole figure shaped to fit the image, although here in an archaeological context.

 

 

Doig’s recent paintings exhibited in 2015 display a physical quality in their construction and appearance that bears a resemblance to the formal qualities of traditional fresco painting, and in some cases, in terms of image and colour, to classical sculpture. These include the use of pale colours, resembling marble, the textures of buildings and surfaces, the adoption of a vertical composition for standing figures, and a sense of balance – physical and compositional.A strong directional natural light models the form of buildings and figures in outdoor settings although the location is sometimes ambiguous with hints of interior spaces despite the strength of the light. His backgrounds are rarely uniform or recessional and his subjects occupy a shallow space, without depth or perspective. Even in apparently outdoor settings, such as Figure reading on grass there is no sense of a specific landscape context – the grass becomes a green wall behind the figure. An example of his increasing focus on buildings is Gable end, but even here the only hint of landscape is limited to narrow views at the extremes of the composition, to left and right. Occasionally compositions, architectural studies such as Derelict building, Ancoats, or Figure with red hat in doorway, allow for openings – open doors or broken windows - but no light is admitted and they remain voids merely suggesting some form of interior space.

                                         

The physical quality of Doig’s painting has been identified by other commentators and   comparisons have been drawn with the work of artists as diverse as the Boyle Family and Mark Rothko; the former for a sense of the recreation of physical surfaces, without gloss, the latter for the ability to create a powerful mood from colour and texture. In his architectural subjects the focus of his vision on the particular and potentially overlooked detail has an earlier model in the urban images of the eighteenth century painter Thomas Jones.  In terms of mood a different sense of wistfulness is identifiable through his use of figures not engaging with the viewer, in intimate settings, which brings to mind both Jan Vermeer and Edward Hopper. His treatment of the individual figure and restrained, yet telling, use of colour also suggest, as previously identified in critical discussion of Doig’s painting, a debt to Andrew Wyeth.

A discussion of Doig’s work, in particular his use of materials and techniques, in the context of the painters of the Florentine Renaissance, raises the issue of his relationship to modernism and the art of the last half century. Several aspects of his early career enable us to locate his work in the tradition of English art of the recent past – his avoidance of narrative and literary reference, use of a range of media including collage, an ability to combine abstract and naturalistic elements in the same composition. We can draw parallels here with the work of Prunella Clough and his friend and mentor David Blackburn, particularly in works from the 1990s such as Veiled Gasometer and Figure Leaving which in different ways argue for the autonomy of the visual over the anecdotal. It is clear that Doig’s concern is with picture-making and not with story-telling.

 

 

Picture-making is dependent on the capacity of the mind and the skill of the hand, to form visual ideas – as perceptions of the outside world or as abstract thoughts – and brings the subjective and objective worlds into reciprocal relationship in representation. The artist’s task is to choose the most appropriate form of representation within the system of representations available, as style. This allows us to respond intuitively to the work of art and its ‘rightness’ or consistency of approach found for example in the relationship of the detail to the whole. Our sense of the rightness or wrongness of the work in itself and in its context is related to its relationship to representation as we understand it, as a fundamental faculty. It may seem that modernism is more concerned with the working of the imagination in this regard and embodies a revolt against representation, even in those increasingly rare examples of the previously privileged painted surface, of which Doig is a master.

If style is a matter of consistency and rigour in the choice of what to represent and how to represent it, the supporters of modernism might regard it as an unnecessary restraint on creativity, a form of visual code no longer required to justify the social value of art in our time. Where Doig’s painting succeeds above and beyond an obvious facility  with materials and techniques it is in his choice of what to represent and what not to represent within a system that gives him freedom rather than acting as a restraint. This can be identified as decorum – a quality of consistency and correctness in the characterization of the human figure and its physical setting, its reciprocal relation to objects in the real world, represented here by subjects drawn from the built environment. Doig’s achievement, over his whole career, is to have identified the best possible way to represent a particular subject, immaculately conceived, in its particular context.

Robert Hall
2015

 

Robert Hall, art historian and curator, is an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and until 2011 was Director of Huddersfield Art Gallery. His ideas about the Renaissance expressed here are informed by the writings of art historian Robert Williams, in particular his essay ‘Italian Renaissance Art and the Systematicity of Representation’ 2008.