Peter Doig, Cabin Essence, 1993–94, oil on canvas, 7' 6 1⁄2“ x 11' 9 3⁄4”.

Peter Doig, Cabin Essence, 1993–94, oil on canvas, 7' 6 1⁄2“ x 11' 9 3⁄4”.

Peter Doig

Peter Doig, Cabin Essence, 1993–94, oil on canvas, 7' 6 1⁄2“ x 11' 9 3⁄4”.

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 Unité d’Habitation apartment building in Briey-en-Forêt, 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). Instead, studies and works on paper show the artist working through variations on the motifs in his larger canvases. These studies preserve the myth of a “given,” or autonomous, image. Whereas exhibiting examples of source material would have opened Doig’s work onto the real world, providing a more substantive look at his method, the studies instead preserve the dislocated quality of many of his subjects. In some cases, it is quite frustrating to be cut off from the real context of the painting. The remarkable Bomb Island, 1991, is a case in point: Here potentially political subject matter is presented not simply as an excuse for surface treatment. The work shows an aerial view of an island covered in ruined buildings, painted in light ocher against a green sea; tracerlike lines of white dots mark the image. The source image remains obscure, but one could imagine a photograph of an island off the Italian coast in 1945; at the same time, the work has a curiously antique feel, like an enlarged cityscape from a fifteenth-century Sienese painting.

Aside from Doig’s phenomenal popular success, it is not immediately apparent why this midcareer retrospective should appear at Tate Britain, particularly when so little in-depth attention has been paid to classic figures of earlier twentieth-century British painting. The hang is busy, but tentative when it comes to more recent work. With the introduction since the late ’90s of thinner washes of paint, more definite poetic themes have emerged in Doig’s work. Yet some of the more recent paintings, made since his move to Trinidad in 2002, are nevertheless slight and seem out of place in such a grand setting, such as Pelican Island, 2006, and Purple Jesus (Black Rainbow), 2004. By contrast, Untitled, 2006, is a masterly work of faint, Tuymansesque forms and misty light.

The most recent painting on view, Man Dressed as Bat, 2007, feels fresh from the studio and bristles with the unsettled qualities of new work. It is difficult to say whether Doig’s restlessness means that he has escaped the dispassionate quality of his source material, or whether his remarkable sense of painting and the painted surface has sustained the success of the “Concrete Cabin” works. Indifferent to anything recognizably human, floating in a silent exotic world, Man Dressed as Bat appears as a picture of instinctive consciousness, an image flashed in the mind of an animal, perhaps. And this is where the exhibition leaves Doig hanging—precariously.

“Peter Doig” is on view at Tate Britain through Apr. 27. The exhibition travels to ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, May 29–Sept. 7, and then to Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Oct. 9, 2008–Jan. 11, 2009.

John-Paul Stonard is a London-based art historian and a contributing editor of The Burlington Magazine.