– Spring/Summer 2000

Rainbows and Other Ruins

Johanne Sloane

Peter Doig, Figure in Mountain Landscape II, Oil on canvas, 229 x 359 cm, 1998/99. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

Peter Doig, Figure in Mountain Landscape II, Oil on canvas, 229 x 359 cm, 1998/99. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.

Peter Doig's roadside rainbows in the series entitled Highway and Country Rock are everyday sorts of apparitions - crude stripes of colour painted onto the opening of a pedestrian tunnel by some anonymous passer-by. The recurrence of serial projects in Doig's practice is important as there is no simple explanation for the chromatic changes from one rainbow painting to the next, nor is there one for the shifting patterns on figure and ground in other series.

An unlikely orange-yellow-green rainbow flashes out against a lavender hillside and sometimes a single colour stains everything in sight.1 It is as if both the landscape and the figures occasionally hovering in it are encoded with layers of semiotic information which might or might not emanate from nature. Since Doig's paintings usually emerge out of the artist's archive of old snapshots, found photographs and video-clips, in an obvious sense the natural world is always already mediated. But in a more profound sense, nature really is different than it was one hundred years ago, when it more convincingly provided an otherness to culture and history and human thought. Now we know that nature is likely to be altered, toxified or mutated, whether the ecosystem in question is a genetic sequence in the human body or an isolated mountain lake.

Highway 3 (1999), like many of Doig's pictures, is divided into simple geometric registers: an expanse of asphalt road, a horizontal line of low-slung fence, bands of undistinguished vegetation. However, arching across the centre of the picture is a flamboyant rainbow. This kind of rainbow resembles countless multi-coloured logos and symbols in pop culture, whether servicing a country-music radio station,

  1. John Gage has written about the disputes which raged between artists and scientists prior to the 20th century, about the correct sequence and number of colours in the rainbow. See John Gage: 'Unweaving the Rainbow', in Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction, London: Thames & Hudson, 1993

  2. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid's paintings are entitled Scenes from the Future: Guggenheim Museum (1974), and Scenes from the future: Museum of Modern Art (1983-84).

  3. Le Corbusier, as quoted in Maurice Besset, Le Corbusier: To Live With the Light, New York: Rizzoli, 1987, p.173

  4. Robert Smithson: 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey', in J. Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley; University of California Press, 1996, p.72

  5. Louis Marin, 'Frontiers of Utopia: Past and Present', Critical Inquiry 19, Winter 1995, p.411

  6. See W.J.T. Mitchell: 'Gombrich and the Rise of Landscape', in A. Bermingham and J. Brewer (eds.), The Consumption of Culture, 1600-1800, New York and London: Routledge, 1995. Mitchell remarks, 'What, we might ask, if landscape were to be thought of, not so much as a representation of a "memorable" scene in nature, but as a mechanism for forgetting or erasing history?', p.110