To reach the house Peter Doig has built on the north coast of Trinidad, you drive from gritty Port of Spain along several miles of treacherously winding road so steep that my cabdriver has to turn off the air conditioner and shift into first gear to complete the ascent. Buffered by lush vegetation in every conceivable shade of green, the route takes you past tire shops and makeshift mango stands to a modernist concrete and wood home perched high above Cyril’s Bay. Here, surrounded by the jungle, Doig is contending with landscape as never before.
One of the world’s most compelling painters and the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Britain earlier this year, Doig, 49, moved his family to Trinidad from London in 2002. For years he had resisted painting what was right in front of him, relying instead on photographs, magazine clippings, album covers and film stills as aide-mémoire. While living in London, he painted landscapes drawn from his Canadian youth and visits to Trinidad: dreamlike, haunting scenes of snow, lakes, cabins and sea, often including lone characters. When London did show up on his canvas, he was living in Montreal. For the first paintings he made after relocating to Trinidad, Doig used picture postcards from India, discovered in a London shop, to help him map out the scenes he’d witnessed firsthand. “I was trying to paint it by proxy,” he says, noting that his paintings “made no attempt to reflect setting.” They were fictionalized images and ruminations “on the idea of memory,” as he puts it.
But recently the restless Doig, game for change, set himself a new challenge: to interpret the world outside his door and to rely more on his imagination than on distance or photographs to help him find his way on the canvas. “Now there’s maybe a kind of fear,” says Doig, who is painting at his home studio while his Port of Spain space is being renovated. “It’s like, Whoa, how do you deal with this? How do you do justice to this? Whereas if you took photographs or sketches and went back to your warehouse in London, then you have that distance and can pick and choose what you want to do. Here I feel like I’m constantly looking for subjects right in front of me.”
We’re facing the sea, standing on a wooden deck on which Doig has set up an enormous telescope, aimed at some distant spot on the horizon. Peering through, he points to an indiscernible speck. “A dory,” he announces, placing his ever-present iPhone on the top of the lens to snap a photo. (Old habits die hard.) Suddenly he directs my attention to the cawing overhead. “Vultures,” he says. He heads back inside to unwrap the speckled orange mangoes he’s purchased at the market: “Sometimes when it rains here, the cloud comes right inside the house.” That nature intrudes is both inspiration and dilemma. “I’ve been taken by surprise by this place, really,” he says, occasionally tugging on his calloused fingers as he speaks. “It confronts you, and you feel almost obliged to respond because it’s so potent.”