The Peter Doig retrospective now filling several galleries at London's Tate Britain is easily the most enthralling show in town. Its achievement is to mystify even as it compels. Doig's paintings have always been singular - narcotic, yet intensely stimulating, beautiful yet way out on a limb - and they seem to grow more original and mesmerizing by the year.
A perpetual outsider, born in Scotland in 1959 but raised in Canada, then an expatriate in London and now Trinidad, Doig didn't show much until he was 30. But if he was a late starter, a few years older than the YBA [Young British Artists] generation with whom he studied, he survived the manic star-making of the 1990s by constantly deepening his art, and the early paintings set the scene for the future. Frequently snowbound - ski-slopes, icy forests, deep drifts settling on the canvas or arriving like hale in twinkling spatters - they often included the lone figures that have come to symbolize his work.
A boy on a frozen pond studies his reflection in the mauve-rippled surface, the paint - flecked, scribbled, stained, perilously thin - as unstable as the ice. A hooded figure in a mountain landscape turns his back to us, apparently sketching something we can't see but ominous as the dwarf in Don't Look Now. A man by the river's edge at twilight, the car headlights on behind him as if he might yet return to reality, is either mesmerized by the weird phosphorescence on the water or about to do away with himself.
At another bend in the river drifts the canoe Doig has painted over and again like some deathless Raft of Medusa. A very early craft, unmanned, appears on an inky expanse that holds the reflection of the Milky Way with the eerie brightness of a basalt mirror. Another, becalmed on a stretch of burning blue, carries a bearded man who could as easily be Charles Manson or the Ancient Mariner, time having stopped like this vessel without oars; the picture is called 100 Years Ago. And out in the beating heat of the West Indian bay, palm trees all around, five spectral figures float away into the future. Or is it the past? One of them looks strangely like the young Paul McCartney.
Every scene suggests an idee fixe, some sight or experience perpetually trapped in the mind that can never be exorcised. Doig's gift is for making these memories seem not just his own, but the viewer's as well, as if we, too, could not forget these peculiar moments in films, novels or scenes skimmed from life with a camera that keep flashing back on the mind's eye.
The slow and distanced trance that characterizes Doig's art comes in part from his use of the camera. Stills and snapshots and even album covers (the bearded man started out as a member of the Allman Brothers) form an aide-memoire, a departure point.
But the memories - not necessarily his own in the first place, and chosen with exceptional instinct for the universal - are obscured, overlaid, blended, corroded, lost and found again, quite altered, in the paint. You can see that happening, both literally and metaphorically, as figures on a shoreline darken into shadows behind flurries of snow accumulating on the canvas like aerosol graffiti, or in a vast diptych showing hundreds of skiers on the slopes. The people are melting into the snow, itself deliquescing into a pink twilight as if the sky had overwhelmed the earth below.