Peter Doig is a good painter. In the earlier work collected here you can see his delight and curiosity with the effects he is achieving: the marks he makes are sometimes descriptive – the spatter of stars, the looping skate marks on ice, the pink glaze on the snow white impasto of Blotter – and sometimes, as with the scattering of irridescent blobs in Concrete Cabin, just devices for returning the eye to the surface of the canvas. If these devices arrest the eye, what holds it is the brooding strangeness of the stories embedded in their surfaces. There is something disquieting about the lone figures and drifting canoes in wild expanses of wood and water, and the houses he often depicts are far from homely, despite the sweetness of their colouring. Blotter and Ski Jacket, despite their extensive exposure since they were painted 15 years ago, still appear strikingly original.
However the later work, which has become increasingly large in scale since he moved to Trinidad in 2002, displays a different kind of uncertainty, one that is less to do with the subjects in the painting as the way they are painted. Adrian Searle, in his review of the show at Tate Britain in the Guardian (05.02.08) describes this gradual releasing of the motif from the dense thickets of pigment as a kind of breakthrough. And yet it seems to me that the haunting vibrancy of an earler work like Jetty is driven precisely by the viscous matter and fractured patination of the medium.
For Searle these thinner, clearer, expanses of canvas allow for a ‘kind of authority that can’t be striven for, but only arrived at like an unexpected gift’. But as I stand looking at the more recent work in the show I wonder whether what this masterly thinness reveals - the staining in Figures in Red Boat, the barely touched ground of Man Dressed as Bat - is an artist spreading himself too thinly. And far from the motif asserting itself (with the possible exception of the deceptively simple Lapeyrouse Wall), it seems increasingly overshadowed by the stylistic presence of others: of Gauguin particularly (in Paragon and Purple Jesus), but also of Tuymans (along with stainers like Morris Louis) in Figures in Red Boat, Baselitz in Stag, and Keifer in Girl in White with Trees. In others too there are the unmistakable traces of Bonnard, Munch, Van Gogh and Bacon.
It is as though what he wants to paint remains elsewhere. Twenty years ago, returning to London, he painted what he had left behind, his childhood memories and his Canadian home. Since moving to Trinidad however, it appears that the need to revive his own past has been superseded by a desire to converse with the past of painting itself: it is as if the new master is calling back to the old - the Museum masters - across time and space, from a safe distance and a new home.
Peter Doig - Tate Britain (until April 2008)