AT THE HEART of Tate Britain's retrospective of Peter Doig is a room of paintings for which the artist is perhaps most known: the "Concrete Cabin" series of 1991-96, comprising views of a modernist building seen through thick, dark trees. Among these works, Cabin Essence, 1993-94, is one of the best, featuring a large expanse of forest with strange floating leaves of paint, composed as though the whole image were a reflection in water. Visible through the trees is the modular black-and-white facade of Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation apartment building in Briey-en-Foret, France, but the emphasis is less on the functional clarity of the architecture than on the mysterious foreground, which evokes the dark, glowing surfaces of Gustave Moreau. Cabin Essence is a great lyrical work that, although telling no particular story, distills the striking format of a strong inner structure held within a field of floating organic and decorative elements, and, like its equally remarkable companion pieces, the image is one of rationality submerged in mystery.
It is to Doig's credit that he has avoided repeating this idea and instead, as the fifty-seven paintings and slightly fewer works on paper here demonstrate, has constantly renewed his subject matter. In the early 1990s, for example, he turned his attention to developing a richly spattered surface, often using a black speckle that resembles mold or something grown in a petri dish. This is given a soft, waxy appearance by being applied directly to a sized, unprimed canvas. In works such as Jetty, 1994, this dry rot is, it must be said, very beautiful--even if such easy elegance also seems at risk of becoming kitsch for its instantly pleasing pictorialism. Doig avoids this pitfall largely thanks to a variability steeped in his photographic source material. Virtually all Doig's paintings are made after found illustrations, postcards, film stills, or photographs, some taken by the artist himself. If these images have anything in common, it is only their generic, distant appearance. The scenes seem familiar but the subjects unknown; there is no vital cord of recognition that draws us into caring about the situations or the people they show.
This feeling of strange indifference is carried through to the paintings, which have a mute quality, like film stills. Intriguingly, the exhibition catalogue reproduces a source photograph that has clearly spent time on Doig's studio floor; it is stained and spattered with gobs of colored paint giving off an oily halo. As a relic it might remind one of the photographic material rescued from Francis Bacon's studio after his death, but Doig's picture is different--it looks exactly like one of his paintings, as if the latter were formed by a similar process of random accretion. Unfortunately, none of this material nor the etchings Doig often uses in preparation for his painting are included at Tate Britain (although they are glimpsed in an informational film). …