Peter Doig’s “Just Passing Thru” (1982), oil on canvas, 77 1/2 x 95 inches, and “Red Sienna” (1985), oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 92 inches (all images courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York/London)

I have always thought it unfair that Peter Doig is chiefly known for the headlines associated with the sale of his “White Canoe” painting by Charles Saatchi at auction in 2007 for £5.7 million ($9.31M). This made him Europe’s most expensive living painter and the acknowledgement was accompanied by all the market-related press and interest that such titles generate. This news was quickly eclipsed by a slew of other auction-related art market shenanigans, and unlike artists like Hirst, Koons, or others, Doig has proved himself to be a stalwart artist’s artist.

The next year marked a major retrospective of Doig’s work at the Tate Britain London, an exhibition which put him happily on the map as one of Europe’s greatest living painters. His masterful oil works primarily focus on natural landscapes, placing anonymous human figures in a range of ambiguous situations. Playing with atmospheric color and often-awkward pictorial space, Doig is a master at conjuring psychic tension and unexpected viewpoints. The artist’s ability to invest his paintings with tension and ambiguity has marked him as a particularly strong talking point for those who point to the resurgence of painting in the last few decades — he has been making this body of deftly painted works since the 1990s. When looking at the artist’s rather expansive body of mature work, it is easy to locate him within a nexus of Expressionist painters like Edvard Munch, or Post-Impressionists like Gauguin.

Peter Doig’s “Untitled” (1983), oil on canvas, 94 x 76 3/4 inches, and “Boom, boom, boom, boom (the sublime)” (1982), oil on canvas, 70 3/4 x 59 1/2 inches.

An exhibition of the artist’s early work at Manhattan’s Michael Werner Gallery provides a breathtaking look at Doig before he was an international sensation. A three-room display of paintings from the 1980s, made after the artist had only just settled into a studio in London, allows us to see a range of initial influences. We are given a look through the artist’s carefully composed economy of means into a fractured, humor-filled past. His earliest paintings suggests he was looking at artists who already would have been enjoying commercial success at the time, like Julian Schnabel.

Peter Doig, “Contemplating Culture” (1985), oil on canvas, 76 3/4 x 95 inches (195 x 241.5 cm)

Doig’s “Contemplating Culture” (1985) is on view in the first gallery, and it is a perfect study in the diverse influences in the artists repertoire. A wave of fire explodes with painterly exuberance from the right side of the canvas erupting into an expansive maroon sky, filled with skeins of black and orange. Minute lines of yellow map out the tangled expanses of an anonymous city in the background. An anthropomorphic jumble of somewhat incomprehensible food, glasses, and implements sprawl over a table. We take a moment to realize that the grey and white man on the left hand of the canvass seems to be the reanimated visage of a classical sculpture. On his right a black T shirt adorned, yellow haired man with pallid skin seems to represent the archetypal artist, young angry, slightly punk. He stairs angrily over the cartoonishly full table at his sculptural counterpart. The result is overtly aggressive. The artist seems to pull no punches, plunging us with full force into a disorienting world of alien strangeness. For all of its storm and stress, there is humor that pulls the viewer back into place. In the top right, a playfully sketched plane floats casually at the sky, apparently oblivious to the wall of fire behind it.

Peter Doig’s “At the Edge of Town” (1986–1988), oil on cnavas, 59 3/4 x 83 3/4 inches, and “Winter Wheat Field” (1986–1988), oil on canvas, 50 1/2 x 30 inches.

If today Doig is best known for his scenes of lakes, canoes, and trees, not to mention Trinidadian views, in the 1980s the artist appears to have an entirely different focus, namely densely packed urbanscapes. There is something particularly familiar about the architecture that reminds me of New York or London. They are wrought with minutely dribbled and scribbled density. They seem to suggest a certain hungry desperation, akin to the sort of creative stabs in the dark that go hand in hand with an artist trying to find his footing. What I am struck by is the personality of his figures. How up close and intimate they are. In one of his paintings, “I Think It’s Time” (1982–83), a grim, scraggly faced cowboy stairs off into a cramped shimmering city. He seems like a character from Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novel. In fact there is a sort of dystopic grit to many of his characters that seems to relate to the anti-hero aesthetic of the graphic novel. His “Just Passing Thru” reminded me of the David Wojnarowicz autobiography, 7 Mies a Second. Though his painting would have predated Wojnarowicz’s book there is something undeniable about the grim, predatory red-lit nature of the painting that harnesses those parts of any city dedicated to red lights and lost souls.

Peter Doig, “I think it’s time…” (1982–1983), oil on canvas, 71 x 93 3/4 inches (180.5 x 238 cm)

In another room we see a combative, shirtless man striding across a biomorphic, alien landscape. This marks 1986, the year when the artist seems to start leaving the city behind in his work. Though his figure looms in the foreground of the picture, the background has such confidence and is so striking it renders the man captive, he is mute, drowned out by the wavering muted colors behind him. 

Installation view of drawings and studies by Peter Doig at Michael Werner Gallery.

Taken by themselves, some of these pictures might be unnecessarily cartoonish or stylized to the point of seeming slightly manufactured. They are experiments, some of them more successful than others. What they do is highlight the efforts of a young artist to portray harsh, sometimes ambiguous mental states using an ever-changing vocabulary. The fickle nature of the group of work taken as a whole gives it an electrifying and charming quality. Sure many of these works are flawed and over zealous but in exactly the right way. I would be much more suspicious were I too have encountered a group of overly beautiful aestheticized landscapes. Instead I can’t stop smiling. Under the beautiful, confusing landscapes that Doig has become famous for are the restless bones of these early works.

Peter Doig: Early Works is on view at Michael Werner Gallery (4 East 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 4, 2013.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, a Keith Haring drawing from his bedroom, reflecting on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, you’re not descended from Vikings, the death of cursive, and more