The Eye of the Painting: An Interview with Peter Doig

You can’t help but like the way Peter Doig makes a picture. He comes at the enterprise from all over the place—places, actually. House of Pictures originated in his response to a 19th-century picture gallery he noticed during a summer in Vienna; it began with drawing the façade of the building, into the windows of which he imagined someone looking. Two years later that someone appeared getting into a minivan outside a restaurant in Vancouver; he was an Aboriginal man who dressed like Johnny Cash and whose body position Doig found especially appealing. But because he wanted the figure to be European, he changed his hair colour from black to red, thinking of him as a has-been painter from a Fassbinder film. He even imagined the painting as part of his future: House of Pictures was also his first interpretation of a Daumier painting that would later emerge in Metropolitan and its various studies.

Doig’s method of composing is a gloss on the way the imagination works: it can be catalyzed by sound, gesture, colour, place or a combination of all these low-key provocations. What is intriguing about his process is the sense of presence his generated images have; they seem familiar and alien at the same time. They have about them a sense of awkward grace. He praises this same quality in one of his favourite paintings by Matisse. In commending Bathers with a Turtle and the artist who made it, Doig says “the painting seems deliberately awkward and he gets away with it.” In a similar vein, he describes his own work as “homely” and his compositional method as one that “allows the picture to go through an ugly phase.”

Doig is occasionally dismissive of his technical skills and it appears to be an ingenuous appraisal. It is also a misguided one. He makes particularly attractive drawings in a number of media, attributes that were everywhere evident in a touring exhibition of drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 22 to June 18, 2006. Look at Untitled (Study for Milky Way), a watercolour with a finely held float of blue; or the crumpled beauty of the pencil version of the girl in the tree, one of his most compelling and unsettling images; or in the truly elegant reduction of a horse’s head to three areas of green and a pair of gold highlights in Grande Riviere (oil on paper, 2002). Doig has an admirable sense of economy and his best work in this register puts you in mind of the drawings of Joseph Beuys. The audacious sweep and absurd drama of Man Dressed as a Bat add a welcome degree of levity to the gravid seriousness of Beuys’s touch. There is also a series of drawings under the title “Driftwood”; in Driftwood (Yara) he sustains a dynamic balance between structure and atmosphere, while others are inescapably reminiscent of Eric Fischl’s seaside drawings from the mid-’80s. What they share with Fischl is a deceptive casualness in delivering an image that firmly imprints itself on the retinal memory. Doig is generous in acknowledging and in entertaining those influences that might have gone unrecognized. This attitude characterizes his approach and his achievement; he is excitedly open to myriad possibilities of conception and execution.

He is also resistant to any sense of resolution, a hesitancy that has served his art well. This is not to say that his drawings and paintings lack either a sense of purpose or presence. They remain fixed in a sort of drift, which accounts for their sometime dream-like quality, as if they were in the first stage of what could become, but never does, hallucinatory. They are distantly insistent. Doig describes this quality as being “hinged in believableness.” The anchoring is provided by the photograph (whether found or self-generated), which is the starting point for almost all his images. The source can be a man dragging a pelican behind him on a remote beach in Trinidad; a sun-dappled postcard from India; a family snapshot taken by one of his daughters; or a photograph of Franklin Carmichael from The Group of Seven sketching en plein air in the mountains. Occasionally, cinema will generate a drawing; Friday the 13th, a film Doig has yet to watch in its entirety, provoked one of his most recognizable images—the solitary figure in Canoe Lake. The same film sequence was also the source for Echo, another of Doig’s layered and ambiguous images. Somehow the cop coming down to the lake’s edge and the endangered figure in the canoe have a direct connection, and it promises to be unpleasant. Much of Doig’s work has this disorienting caste; you most certainly want to stay off any wave his surfer might be on, and the solitary figures in his landscapes occupy a mood range running from the pathetic to the spectral. 100 Years Ago decidedly rings the latter note; it is a memento mori for the bass player from the Allman Brothers Band. In all its variations, this subject is vexing and irresistible; the stretch of the canoe across the entire length of the drawn and painted surface is as much a structural device as an object replicated in the work. The spatial attenuation underlines the bizarre isolation of the figure in the canoe, but it also makes the painting. 100 Years Ago has taken on an almost iconic significance in Doig’s careful output.

What is most fascinating about Doig is the way he avoids sentimentality in works that he admits could easily topple over into that self-conscious condition. The effect of his unfailing control in this area is that his works are replete with edgy nostalgia; the comfort zone of recognition you think you’re in chafes against the skin of your consciousness. You don’t fit in with these images and the images don’t sit comfortably in the world. Everything—and everyone—in Doig’s world remains held in a float of pleasing unease.

The following interview with Robert Enright was recorded in Toronto on March 25, 2006.

INTERVIEW

BORDER CROSSINGS: One of the many things you’ve said that interest me is that your paintings “were like taking pictures with Van Gogh film in the camera.”

PETER DOIG: What I meant was that my paintings were a way of looking at the world, not through the eyes of a painter, but through the eyes of painting. It was about looking at the world with the knowledge of a lot of painting. The capturing of it was a reference to the photograph but that’s what happens to certain artists: you’re always thinking about what would make an interesting painting.

BC: How does your family feel about the fact that they are in constant danger of being fodder for some as yet unmade painting?

PD: They’re not really in on that yet. I haven’t used them and I may not. But I think about it a lot. I should make a painting of my four daughters. I was looking at these group portraits Matisse did and began thinking that maybe I should try to do something like that. It’s tricky to do without becoming overly sentimental, although he managed it. He was able to use his family members as subjects and still maintain enough distance to get a kind of representation. I’m not sure I can do that.

BC: What was interesting about Matisse was that he constructed an entire world. It was as if he were living inside a fiction of his own making. Maybe that gave him sufficient distance from it.

PD: He was such a studio artist and he painted these constructed worlds within his own world. The odalisque paintings were complete fakes. I guess other things can enter into that arena as well.

BC: Last night in an onstage conversation with Bruce Ferguson at the Art Gallery of Ontario, you mentioned Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle. It must be a painting that painters are entranced by because Eric Fischl has also cited it as a preoccupation. He admired the grotesque head of the middle woman and the way Matisse paints the hand gesture of the woman who leans down to entice the turtle.

PD: It’s an incredible painting for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that it’s so crude. I mean, the flesh is just pasted on. It seems deliberately awkward and yet he gets away with it. That awkwardness is not your first impression but once you get up close, it looks like really awful painting. I was bewildered by the central, mad face.

BC: It’s as if he were a painterly Frankenstein. It’s almost monstrous.

PD: It is. I actually find there is a whole period in the late teens where he made a lot of portraits with black eyes and areas of scratching that are very macabre, although you never read about them in that way.

BC: You’ve said that you want to get a certain awkwardness in your work, a “homely look,” you call it. Is that deliberate or are you aiming for something that would look less awkward?

PD: That’s my dilemma. If I abandoned photography, I would be dealing with a much more lumpen, ugly form, but I’m not sure that I want to go that far.

BC: Is it that the photography holds you to a more realistic and mimetic world?

PD: Yes. I like a world where you’re hinged in reality, hinged in a believableness.

BC: Most of the critics, including Rudi Fuchs and Kaspar Koenig, talk about your paintings as having a certain sense of menace. Do you take that as an accurate reading of the way the images can look to people? Do they seem that way to you?

PD: Not really, because I’ve looked at them for so much longer than anyone else has. I’m acclimatized to them. It’s like trying to find the word to describe those paintings by Matisse. You can say they have black eyes but they’re not deliberately about horror or the abject. I don’t really know how to articulate what I do. With painting, you’re always trying to find a way to describe what you’re seeing because you’re often looking at the indescribable. You can literally describe what you’re looking at, but to actually get at the emotion you feel is very, very difficult.

BC: Let me give you a specific example. I look at Echo and my initial reading is that this figure has come down to the lake to hear his voice echo. But then you realize the man is a cop—you see the police car with its flashing lights behind him—and what started out as a notion that a man has come down to the lake edge to engage in some sonic play turns out to be a possible tragedy. You sense this cop is looking for a floating body.

PD: That comes from a sequence in the film Friday the 13th as well, and it is a policeman screaming out into the lake where there is a canoe with a body in it. There’s also a painting by Munch called Ashes, which shows a woman by a lakeside, holding her red hair, and this image of a screaming policeman with his hands up to his face reminded me of the way she’s standing with her arms up. It’s hard to tell if she’s screaming but he definitely is; he’s using his hands to give more volume to his scream. The Munch painting got me interested in trying to convey sound through an echo and the configuration of a body—and then you also have the echo in the reflection.

BC: You have the suggestion of a synaesthesia because in the studies for Echo, you get a visual echo in the doubling of the body.

PD: Yes, and you get that sense with the ripples, as well.

BC: You use doubling a lot. Is it a device or did you just spend so much time at the water with its reflections that a doubled world became natural to you?

PD: I think it took me by surprise. I made one or two works—there’s one in the drawing show called Study for Milky Way and I made another painting called Swamped, which had a reflected boat—and I didn’t really think that much about it at the time. It was a coincidence. Then I started thinking about the picture plane and how the reflection gave you licence to paint the same picture in a different way, and also with a different type of motion to it. I think it opens up the picture; it gives a point of entry into it. In Orpheus Cocteau used this kind of reflection as the entry point into the Underworld, or the other world. I just think it makes a painting less fathomable and maybe vaster.

BC: The way you play around with perspective is intriguing. With Birdhouse you can’t tell whether the house is hanging on a tree branch or if it’s a full-sized cabin perceived through a foreground scrim of trees and branches. It’s almost impossible to locate yourself, in looking at the piece.

PD: That’s what’s interesting about birdhouses as miniature houses. They have that effect.

BC: But the building behind a dense screen of foliage or trees is a trope for which you seem to have a special fondness.

PD: I actually stopped doing it because I was doing it too much. I was trying to describe to someone the way I made those paintings: I deliberately painted the buildings through the trees rather than paint the building and then cover them in trees. Even with the modernist buildings, I didn’t paint the façade and then put the trees over them, I actually painted them through the trees, so it was more about looking and picking out bits with the eyes. It’s a much slower process. There’s one painting called Rosedale, which is a view of a grand Rosedale manor through the trees from a snapshot I took, where I literally picked my way at it. It was a way of seeing into that world.

BC: Do you do it to confound yourself and the viewer? It’s a lovely way to create a pictorial mystery where you can’t quite place yourself in the space. To be floating as opposed to being anchored.

PD: To get to where you’re going through the trees rather than to just be in the thicket. I wanted that in those particular paintings. Going back to the idea of reflections, I made a number of paintings where there was a fake reflection. I was making the painting of a house and after about three or four months of working on it, I just traced the house and reflected it directly. Then I went on to making paintings where I created a reflection. I actually staged the Blotter painting by having my brother stand on ice and we actually put water on the ice to increase the reflections and then I took the photograph.

BC: How do you otherwise generate pictures? I look at a piece like House of Pictures and wonder how the picture comes to be. And who is that red-haired figure? Is that from Munch, too?

PD: No, it was someone I saw in the street. I’d been in Vienna working in a studio for a summer and there was a gallery down the road called Haus der Bild—House of Pictures—which sold commissioned artworks, generic landscapes and portraits, painted in a 19th-century realist manner. It had this incredible façade with big letters that said “House of Pictures.” It seemed quite mysterious, like something in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. I liked the wording too: Haus der Bild. But it was on quite a big scale so I started by painting the façade in a couple of small paintings. Then I thought about putting someone looking in the window and it took me quite a while to find the figure. I was in Vancouver some years ago and I had taken some snapshots when I was in an outside cafe in the countryside. One of them was of a guy getting into a minivan; he had his hands in his pockets, looking for his keys, and he was dressed all in black leather like Johnny Cash. He was actually native Indian. I never saw his face but he had this incredible mane of black hair and this black hat, and he had on these extreme cowboy boots. It was the body position that I liked. But in my painting I wanted the figure to look European, so I made his hair red instead. I wanted him to be like a figure from a Fassbinder film. I was thinking of an ’80s artist, a painter maybe, who’s no longer that well known but still dresses the part. He’s in that moment of reflection. I was definitely interested in his body language and how it suggested that he was lost in thought.

BC: So in House of Pictures, 2001, one figure with red hair occupies the right-hand side of the picture and then, next to it, just the hair is sketched in within a dirty lavender wash. Do you do the figure first and then its echo is generated out of the making of that figure? This idea of images stuttering across the surface is one that you often use.

PD: In this case it was something that really took me by surprise because I had drawn the hair first as a sort of floating wig, and I’m pretty sure I was doing it at the same time as the painting, because the figures are the same size. Then I probably folded the paper over and I drew the more complete figure. That was a genuine find for me because it was a scrap lying on the floor folded, and when I opened it up, I saw that it had this double thing. I pinned it on the wall, where it hung for ages, and it probably got a bit of purple paint put on it somewhere along the line.

BC: But then you draw in what is a green picture frame?

PD: That’s a kind of window. Actually, those were the first paintings I made in reference to the Daumier, even though it was completely my take on it rather than referring to the Daumier that I did later in Metropolitan.

BC: You literally put a picture together. This methodology you’ve described wouldn’t be uncharacteristic?

PD: That’s the way I work. Sometimes things come more directly from one source. A number of the paintings I’ve been making in Trinidad have come from a single found postcard. Like the ones with the guy and the pelican. This is how the pelican painting came about. I first went back to Trinidad in 2000 to do a residency with an artist friend of mine and we were on this remote part of the coast. We were the only people on this little stretch of coastline when we saw this guy in the water and I said to my friend, “Look, there’s a man swimming with a pelican.” We walked closer, thinking maybe he had found a pelican that had been caught in something, and then we realized he was wringing its neck in the water. Then he got out of the water and he was walking along the beach, swinging it to make sure its neck was properly wrung. He just was walking along the beach dragging it and he gave us this terrible look. I don’t know how he had procured this thing but it was probably going to be his dinner, which is fair enough. But it was just such a striking thing because it almost looked like this act of stroking in the water, when he was actually killing it. Back in the studio the next day, I immediately did some watercolours based on what I had seen but they didn’t have the atmosphere of what I’d remembered. Then, just by chance, in London I found a postcard of a

BC: There is a certain sense of unease in your work. You never quite know what you’re looking at, which makes your painted world inexplicable.

PD: Yes, but I think that’s a good thing. It makes sense to me.

BC: Why do you return so often to themes in your work? I think of the “Driftwood” series, which, when I first saw them, made me think of Eric Fischl’s drawings of figures on the beach. Especially the particularly intimate arrangement of your two figures.

PD: I remember those paintings, very slippery things that I liked. He obviously got quite involved with people on beaches and it became a big subject for him.

BC: But you return to that theme, too. There must be at least six variations on the “Driftwood” theme.

PD: I think those were pretty much all made as studies for the actual painting, which is in the Carnegie. To get the figures to work, I had to do lots and lots of sketches because there was so little information, which is often the case because I’m working with photographs. A photograph always works, whether it’s blurred or not, because you take it for granted, but you can lose that recognition when you try to turn that information into painting information.

BC: We fill in the information with the photograph, don’t we, but we can’t do that with the painting, which has to generate the information.

PD: Yes. But that pink one [Untitled, 2003, charcoal and oil on paper] was done incredibly quickly and I didn’t really think very much of it at first, but now when I look at it, it probably has more than the big painting has.

BC: In the “Briey” interiors, you move back from the same perspective and do multiple renderings of that interior space. They’re all rendered very differently. One of the studies is minimal, pastellated and pulled back; in another, there is a more insistent grid. This dialogue between an insistent sense of structure—there are times when you put in geometric lines to accentuate that—and the remarkable looseness of the work is something that interests me.

PD: I’m glad you noticed that sense of structure. It’s important for me that the paintings have a structure because otherwise they could descend to this netherworld of no-structure and become a type of painting I really wouldn’t want to be making. Getting back to Munch, there is a lot of structure in his works, as well. The drawing is the structure of those paintings. I think I need to put in more rigorous forms as a support for the way the paintings end up being made. What’s important to me is time, and being able to allow the paintings to go through quite ugly phases and not destroy them.

BC: But the beautiful suffusion of colour in Driftwood (Yara), where the watercolour itself drifts, is as close as you get to Turner. It works, but it has almost no structure.

PD: That’s true. Again, that’s something that has only happened with the works on paper. Maybe a little bit in the paintings. But what I like about seeing all the works on paper is that they suggest ways of making paintings. I don’t know. I guess there’s a lot less at stake. There’s always the fear of the canvas.

BC: So in one version of Grande Riviere, your rendering of the horse makes me think of David Milne—it’s more white space than animal—and then you do an almost not-there drawing with three marks. It’s very pale and has hints of Joseph Beuys.

PD: Actually, it’s the horse’s head. When you think of Beuys’s drawings, or some of the things Cy Twombly did on paper, you realize there are not just one or two works, there are many. So when you say Beuys’s drawings, I immediately have in my mind an image of what you’re talking about. But I feel with my work that it’s too early on to say whether they’re good or not. What I mean is that these things have come off the studio floor in a way. The reduced drawing was made specifically to work out how to articulate the head of this horse in a bigger picture. So I’m not wilfully making little things.

BC: Let me ask you about one of my favourites of your drawings—one that also reminds me of Beuys—called Man Dressed as a Bat. It’s a kind of operatic Beuys. Where in the world did that image come from?

PD: There is an artist in Trinidad called Emba, for whom I have a lot of respect. He’s an older man—it’s hard to tell but he could be in his 70s—but his work is not known outside Trinidad. He does paintings and constructions, he makes sculpture, and he uses whatever he can find. Some people might call him a folk artist but what he does is incredibly considered. I’ve got a number of his paintings and sculptures. He also gave me this little sculpture of a man dressed as a bat, which is a traditional carnival figure. There’s a whole history to it where they dress as a bat and do a special dance. There’s a famous guy from a part of Port of Spain called “The Batman of Belmont” who died just recently. Anyway, it’s a beautiful little sculpture made of wire and papier mâché, and the legs, which are carved out of wood, have these beautifully accentuated calves. I had it in my studio late one night and noticed it was casting a shadow on the wall, so I just moved the light around. It was on a chair and so what looks like a landscape in the drawing was actually something on the chair. The two strips that go down were the legs but it ended up becoming something else.

BC: So many of these works have a clear autobiographical connection. They’re cared-for. Do all the drawings have some connection to your imaginative and personal life?

PD: There is a personal connection almost without exception. Apart from the pelican guy, most of the people in my paintings are people I know in some way.

BC: The girl in the tree is taken from a photograph one of your daughters took of one of her sisters. I’m not sure why, but I’ve got to say that that picture causes some unease.

PD: I’m not sure why, either. Probably because it makes you think about all sorts of things that you don’t necessarily want to think about. Sometimes you see your child in a very different way. I look at one of my daughters when they’re all asleep and you can say there’s a beautiful, sleeping child but you can also have morbid thoughts because she’s sleeping in a strange position and she looks like she may be dead. If you have a child, you’re always thinking about things like mortality. But these types of discussions make me realize more and more how a lot of the images I make are just floating. They really are unattached from a bigger picture. But I don’t want to back away from that, in a way.

BC: I’m intrigued to hear you say floating because were I to describe the sense of space in your work, it wouldn’t be perspectival but closer to something like the Floating World, an aesthetic that comes out of oriental cultures.

PD: That’s interesting. I haven’t ever consciously tried to quote anything from that part of the world.

BC: But the painter in Figure in Mountain Landscape, a 1998 oil on paper work, is rendered as if he were the scale of a Goya giant who happens to be sitting in the landscape rather than striding across it. He’s suspended and you can’t read the scale of the space around him.

PD: Yes, the photograph I’ve used as a source of Franklin Carmichael painting is extraordinary. As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to make a painting. It’s so mysterious. In some ways, you can’t do justice to the photograph. I found it very, very difficult to paint because if you try to paint it as it is, you end up with a figure who seems to be wearing a warlock outfit. I had to find a way to turn him in to something else. So I turned him into part of the painting. I did three large versions, mainly because I enjoyed it so much. I wanted to do more, but I think the first one is probably the most successful.

BC: As a Canadian critic, my inclination is to place you in a tradition that is not only pictorial but psychic, as well. It goes back to the solitary figure in the landscape—it’s not surprising that Margaret Atwood would do a response to your work in the catalogue for the drawing exhibition—and what that represents as a psychic emblem for the way we are at odds with nature. Is that a legitimate way of reading those works?

PD: I think so. It’s the fascination and fear and the strangeness you get in nature. An artist I just had lunch with was showing me photographs he had taken in the Himalayas and I was thinking about what that air must feel like and the extraordinary awesomeness of it. In a way, it’s quite strange to try to capture that. If you look at the picture of the man painting in the landscape, the landscape is such a thing, and all he has is this piece of paper in front of him. It’s like the impossible, isn’t it? It’s daunting. It’s a feat akin to climbing the mountain. I think of Turner going into the Alps and then coming back with these renditions. It’s an amazing and ambitious idea.

BC: The Art Gallery of Ontario has your drawings on exhibition at the same time as they’re showing David Milne. They go to some delicate lengths in pointing out the similarities between your work. How do you react to that?

PD: I had mixed thoughts about it because while I love David Milne’s work, I think I’m such a different type of artist. So much has happened between the time he was making his works and now; even the way people think about nature has changed so much. To begin with, I thought, this is a difficult pairing for me, showing next to a hero of Canadian art, and also next to a lifetime’s work. For me there is only a bit of 10 years of work in that room. It goes back to thoughts about the way things should be displayed in museums and I think it’s very good to put two exhibitions together and allow the viewers to make up their own mind about the relationship.

BC: There’s also the question of rendering, of using the space that is not filled in. An early piece like Dragnet does that; it’s as much about what’s not there as about what is there.

PD: I was in my 30s, after I’d come back to Canada and lived in Montreal, when I started looking at Milne’s work more closely. I became interested in his use of colour, the way he used black, and the way he abstracted nature. They’re not at all literal. I even thought about trying to make a painting of a black mountain. It’s something I’d like to try at some point, but I don’t know if I’m ready for it. There are some quite extreme choices he made, but the thing I like is that you don’t really question them when you’re looking at the work. I find the real strength of his work is its believability, even though, if you really start thinking about it, it’s not believable. But it’s not at all psychedelic, it’s not at all like Hundertwasser. It’s very restrained, but it’s also very extreme. It’s a kind of extreme mental space that he has somehow drawn out of nature.

BC: You’re looking at him as a painter and not as a nature painter. So the subject matter is not the thing about him that interests you.

PD: No, it’s his mind, really.

BC: That’s the sense you have about yourself when you say you’re not a landscape painter, even though landscape turns up in much of your work? You’re more of a psychic-scape painter?

PD: I think so. It’s hard to put a word to it but maybe that’s getting towards it.

BC: But your work is never hallucinogenic?

PD: The one painting that was quite influenced by the idea of hallucinating or drug use was the Blotter painting. I really wanted to depict someone who actually looked quite normal, but it was more about his attitude than the psychedelia of making an acid painting.

BC: Rudi Fuchs attributes to you an aesthetic intentionality in saying that you come out of a period of decades of fierce argumentation about what painting was and that you determined you would deliberately paint in a “fragile” way.

PD: I was quite interested when I read that. Someone who saw my work after not having seen it for a long time—he knew me as a student in the ’80s and then he saw my work in the ’90s—said he thought they’d been painted by a woman. He wasn’t saying it to unnerve me. He said there was something about the sensibility that wasn’t necessarily masculine. I’m not suggesting that women make fragile paintings, especially ones that are prominent today, like Jenny Saville. It’s not something I deliberately tried to do, but maybe Fuchs is right, I don’t know.

man dragging a fishing net on a beach in India and he had the same attitude and the same body language as the guy in Trinidad, so I just changed the fishing net into a pelican.

BC: I wonder, too, if the fragility is a product of what you can’t get rather than what you intend to get. Sometimes it’s about a failure of technique rather than control over it.

PD: That’s true. If you think of fragile in that way, then it’s quite accurate. I think one of my students was saying that she thought some of the paintings I had made had allowed her generation to work with subjects that they may not have worked with before. What she meant was this edge of sentimentality, of playing with the notion of something that is on the cusp of sentimentality and can drop into it at any moment.

BC: Fuchs also talks about Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who wrote “glory be to god for dappled things,” which idea you have a little fun with in the Ooty Boathouse. You have colour lozenges across the entire roof.

PD: That was on the postcard. Those “Ooty Boathouse” paintings came from this tiny segment of a postcard of a river scene in southern India and there’s a little boat shack where they probably serve tea. On the hand-painted postcard, the roof is painted with dots of colour, which I copied.

BC: Do you have a large picture archive?

PD: I wouldn’t call it an archive because it’s too random for that. It’s just stuffed in boxes. Then, if they do actually end up being used, I save them and put them in another box. And the Canadian curator Kitty Scott had the idea of making these vitrines for the exhibition she curated in 2000, which came out of her interests in archiving. I thought it was a good introduction to the work and the things that inspired me.

BC: There are at least three versions of Guest House, one of which looks like you’re playing with the idea of carnival, and in the third one, a watercolour, the figures are beginning to dissolve. Is that a natural progression for the studies—that each time you teach yourself something that will make it easier to make a larger painting?

PD: In some ways. I think there are four of those altogether. I was painting these faces—my face and a friend’s—because we were made up in costumes from the ballet when we worked as dressers. It was quite nice, this notion of painting a painted face. And one of them is quite washed out. Again, this is something that works on the paper things, but hasn’t really entered into the painting. There is a big painting of those two figures and the heads are painted closer to a type of realism than having any sense of dissolving.

BC: Why did your family move so much?

PD: I don’t really know. It is strange, isn’t it? My father was born in Sri Lanka and his father, who was in shipping or exporting, also moved around quite a lot. My father got a job in Trinidad through the newspaper. He was an accountant and he worked for a shipping company, and then he got transferred after four or five years to Montreal. That’s how we ended up in Canada. But then once we got to Canada, we moved a lot, even within neighborhoods. He would go to efforts to fix up and paint the house and make it nice and then we’d move. I don’t think I ever lived in a house for more than four years, maybe five. I see this as quite strange now, but then, I’ve moved my family quite a bit, too.

BC: Does Port of Spain seem like home?

PD: I’m the type of person where nowhere really seems like a permanent home. I’m always thinking about places to go, so that when I’m here I think maybe we should come back to Canada. Having had those experiences, nothing seems permanent really. Sometimes I wish I’d been rooted in a place, the way you were talking about being rooted in Winnipeg. I’ve never really had that. Maybe in London as an adult, because I was there for 25 years. I’ve started travelling, through being an artist, which I never thought would have happened.

BC: You mention film a fair amount and I gather it’s a medium that continues to occupy portions of your imagination.

PD: Yes, I’ve started the Studio Film Club in Trinidad, but I’ve never really thought about making a film, although everyone thinks they should one day. I’m quite happy to make paintings and sometimes films do influence them. People always talk about Friday the 13th but I’ve made a painting recently that was indirectly influenced by Tokyo Story, where I don’t refer to a type of framing, or a still, but more to the mood I felt when I watched the film. It’s the painting of a figure walking by the cemetery wall called Lapeyrouse Wall. It’s an oddity at the moment and maybe another similar painting will emerge because it’s so plain in a way.

BC: Have you seen Friday the 13th all the way through yet?

PD: No. Both paintings I’ve done come from the same sequence in the movie.

BC: If you look at the poster you did for The Big Lebowski, you choose an image that you’ve already worked in a piece like Metropolitan. In some ways, the posters are you trying to affirm the events of your own autobiography.

PD: Yes, trying to find myself in other people’s films. A lot of the posters I’ve made is me seeing myself in the films, or seeing my own work in the films. But it’s also absolutely true that my poster work comes out of the hand-painted posters you see throughout Port of Spain. You see them on the street on a daily basis; everything you can imagine. Sometimes they’re just written signs. I should take photographs of them because they’re the kind of thing that are lost once society gets a makeover.

BC: So when you talk about the posters being the product of what you call “ugly thick layers of oil paint,” you’re referring to a deliberate anti-aesthetic?

PD: I do find a beauty and an artistry in them.

BC: You said last night, and you’ve said it before, that painting is a “hopelessly romantic” thing to do and yet you’re still doing it. Why?

PD: I think it’s an addiction. Lots of people have gone to art school and find themselves in other vocations. You meet someone who has been a struggling painter for 25 years, and in your heart of hearts you know this person is not getting anywhere. Then something extreme happens and they end up doing something else, at which they absolutely flourish. But it’s very, very hard for me to give up painting. I can’t give it up.

BC: Maybe it was that essay you did on Duchamp when you were only 17 years old.

PD: Yes, stupid as a painter. It’s good to be stupid in that way.

Volume 25, Number 2: Evan Penny

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #98, published June 2006.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.