Peter Doig; Jasmine Thomas-Girvan & Chris Ofili review – tall tales on distant shores

Michael Werner Gallery; David Zwirner, London
Peter Doig’s new paintings are typically mysterious and entrancing, but a joint show from his Trinidadian neighbours glitters less for all its gold

Peter Doig’s latest paintings are as bewitching as ever – but even stranger. Given that lingering mystery has been the uppermost trait of his art for more than 30 years, this is no small feat. Many of his motifs remain the same, what is more – lone divers, solitary figures on glowing shorelines, curious birds, the scorching streets and blue shadows of Trinidad, where Doig has lived since 2002 – yet their significance has deepened with time, like recurring characters in a long sequence of novels.

A blue pierrot is partially visible in the deep fronds of the forest. A bather comes up to a beach at dusk, the sea like moire silk behind him. Three figures in antique costumes, one in a tricorn hat, two holding guitars, stand ready for some outlandish performance to begin. Watteau in the jungle.

At 60, Doig has long since made the Lion of Judah his own, releasing the beast into the haunts of his art. In the past, it has been a Rastafarian yellow. Now it lurks outside the prison in Port of Spain, a burning high-visibility orange. The spectral face of a lifer appears at a barred window above, the lion a beacon of his lost freedom.

But now it appears, in another painting, abruptly close to the foreground as if by cinematic jump-cut. This time the creature basks in freeze-frame, dominating the burning yellow boulevard like a floating vignette. The image lies somewhere between memory, dream and hypnotic trance. It feels as if the scene were already in your head, somehow, and Doig’s gift was to free it.

Bather (Night Wave), 2019 by Peter Doig.
‘St Elmo’s fire flickers round his mythical face’: Bather (Night Wave), 2019 by Peter Doig. Photograph: © Peter Doig/DACS/courtesy Michael Werner Gallery

Almost as familiar as the lion, by now, is his musclebound bather in old-fashioned trunks. Doig found an old photograph of Robert Mitchum posing on a beach during filming in Trinidad. The original figure metamorphoses into a strongman fit for Picasso, then becomes a modernist colossus on blond sands. But at night the beach turns bitter orange, surf rises in spectral surges beneath a crescent moon and the bather is a ghost, St Elmo’s fire flickering round his mythical face. Not the least pleasure of this enthralling show is this sense of narratives building between the works.

Everywhere you see traces of the artists Doig admires: Chagall’s flying figures brought down to earth in a painting of a postman pushing a white-beard along a street lit with eerie phosphorescent blossoms. A solitary lighthouse arrives out of De Chirico. There are hints of the yellow house at Arles, and of its tenants Gauguin and Van Gogh – all as inherent and fundamental as the landscape itself, or the washes of atmospheric distemper that steep the canvas, somehow coexisting with incidents in high-chrome oil.

Doig is a tremendous shape-maker himself. Even just a shadow thrown on water between two luminescent green trees takes on an almost human force of personality. Leaves rhyme with bananas, and vice versa. The figure of a diver fishing for the electric squiggle of fish is as indelible as Superman, yet strangely diaphanous. How is it that his legs are visible through a bar of liquid green, while the lower body of a girl next to him is not? And where has she come from, in her wintry cagoule?

A picture may be painted in several different idioms and registers. A nearly abstract stretch of wall will be pierced with the meticulous description of a door. Objects in the distance can seem sharper than those in the foreground. People in contemporary dress appear puzzlingly ancient. Small canvases skim images from the Trinidad streets – figures pressing towards the viewer – only to lose them in the hot night. Vast canvases fuse past and present like modern legends: behind the enormous bather is a blue shadow wrestling a leviathan.

Each work invites you to solve its pictorial mystery, which sometimes seems nearly possible. A huge painting of an opalescent beach shows figures lying at intervals on the sands – a blue odalisque with hair like leaves, two pink palms glimmering on the shoreline. The scene is sumptuous yet diaphanous: Doig is painting the curious moonlight. But what then is that strange glowing oblong that hangs over the waves, rivalling the planetary moon? This shape holds fast, casting a light of its own, shifting the picture into another dimension – not a seascape so much as an indelible vision.

Kiss (Odysseus & Calypso), 2019, by Chris Ofili.
‘A Caribbean homage to Klimt’: Kiss (Odysseus & Calypso), 2019, by Chris Ofili. Photograph: Anna Arca/© Chris Ofili/courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Commercial gallerists’ shows serve a useful purpose, allowing admirers, as well as collectors, to keep abreast of their artists’ latest work. Just now, Chris Ofili, Doig’s friend in Trinidad, can also be glimpsed in a blue chip Mayfair gallery. Ofili has been deep in Homer, specifically The Odyssey. His paintings of the epic voyage depict Odysseus as a black man all at sea with the nymph Calypso, here reconceived as a mermaid. Their bodies twine and merge in a sequence of oceanic seductions, her tail making waves, his eyes closed in ecstasy. The paint rises up in surging colour.

It is exactly as you would expect from Ofili – lavish surfaces, curvaceous arcs, sub-Matisse compositions. And plenty of gold: golden bubbles drift up one canvas as Odysseus plunges head down, as if drowning, the image pivoting on his gilded penis. Golden spots fleck the rich carpet on which the lovers lie in Kiss, a Caribbean homage to Klimt. Ten watercolours of the couple acquire their allure mainly from the copious use of gold leaf.

A black Virgin Mary, a black Paradise Lost, a black Odyssey: Ofili has been reimagining the old narratives for as long as he’s been making pictures. Last year, at the age of 50, he began illustrating Othello with etchings of the Moor as a curlicued hippy. In the sultry swirl of these Homeric paintings, significant attention is always given to the hero’s black body hair and the droop of his slightly Samuel L Jackson moustache, making the political point once more. Odysseus is alive in the culture of Trinidad.

Ofili’s neighbour on the island, the Jamaican artist Jasmine Thomas-Girvan, makes collages, tableaux and small-scale bronze sculptures of quizzical figures – birds with human faces, hybrid critters, tables sprouting skeletons, skulls and outstretched black arms. The colonial past is everywhere invoked, fused with Caribbean nature and ritual. A woman swallows a brilliant feather, red, green and yellow; another holds a silver plaque engraved with Bob Marley lyrics. Her art swims between myth and reality too, but is sometimes only just on this side of kitsch.

Medicine for All Things, 2016 (detail) by Jasmine Thomas-Girvan.
Medicine for All Things, 2016 (detail) by Jasmine Thomas-Girvan. Photograph: © Jasmine Thomas-Girvan/courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Star ratings (out of five)
Peter Doig ★★★★★
Jasmine Thomas-Girvan & Chris Ofili ★★

Peter Doig is at Michael Werner Gallery, London, until 16 November
Jasmine Thomas-Girvan and Chris Ofili: Affinities is at David Zwirner, London, until 21 September


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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