Wed, Feb 13, 2008 - Page 15 News List

Peter Doig is off the blocks to take a late lead

Peter Doig may have been a late-starter in the art world but, as his major show at Tate Britain reveals, he is a mesmerizing artist

By Laura Cumming  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Doig holds back the oblivion, every time, with a strong depictive touch. A painting that looks on the verge of abstraction will be held together with precise description - the puckering of water, the piebald dappling of sunshine, a striation of reeds along a riverbank that looks like a drawing catching fire: just enough to keep the scene plausibly real, before releasing it into the dreamy wilds. And they are quite wild, his paintings, veering between enchantment and fear. Who is this man who turns to meet your gaze with a dying pelican in his hand? Where is this wall apparently studded with jewels at which two costumed figures stand sentry beneath a performance of the Northern Lights? How did the little girl in the white pajamas climb so high in that midnight tree? Doig seeks to fix in your mind whatever haunted his from the wondrous strangeness of the visible world.

But he never lets you forget the strangeness of picturing itself - that a painting, unlike a photograph, is never really still and, in his case, quite the reverse. The whole surface of a Doig is a micro-life of incidents - focus pulls, jumps in scale, skittering-scattering brushmarks, encrusted impasto, veiled blurs and cross-fades, the leaching and streaking of paint, abrupt discontinuities between psychedelic colors and severe monochromes that seem to belong only to the world of painting.

Lately, it's been suggested, the paint is taking over altogether and it might seem so when you consider the apparently empty expanse of an enormous canvas like Untitled 2006. But look closer into the wash of paint, thin as watercolor, and you'll see a figure high up a palm tree, a bird soaring across the pulsating lilac light and, as your eyes adjust, the spectral trace of an interloper: a stranger in paradise.

If his art was always a bit trippy, reamed out with visions, it now approaches the hallucinatory: winged figures, hot shores, the canoe vanishing into the pale horizon. But Doig's style, by contrast, gets more disciplined by the year. His art is becoming grander and more formal with the decades, his latest paintings composed as distinctively as anything by Bonnard or Matisse.

There are no false notes, the great scale is perfectly judged to hold all the perceptual incidents and maintain the balance between narrative and image. For in the end, no matter how much they invite interpretation, propose a backstory or riddle with the viewer's sense of mystery, Doig's paintings are about mood and atmosphere above all else. His great gift is for altering our state of mind through the mind's eye, for getting out of this world by inventing another through painting.

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