Anything's possible on the road to excess

Peter Doig's work is hard to pin down, but Tom Lubbock sees in it an artist always ready to break new ground
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Imagine it really was finished. Imagine that The Death of Painting? didn't have a question mark, but rather a date - that it wasn't a doubtful debating point but a well established and recognised fact. Arts do pass away from time to time. And if painting did finally turn its face to the wall, there would be certain benefits. We could sit back and survey the whole art of painting - the beginning, the middle and the end - knowing we had the lot. What's more, nobody would have to fret about painting's future or wait tensely for the next twist in the tale or wonder what else there was to add

Meanwhile... Evidently one does keep wanting something new. And the problem nowadays isn't that we can't tell what a new sort of painting would look like (of course we can't). It's that we're unsure even what sign to expect it under, what newness would feel like. Once it came in the form of shock or astonishment or outrage. But that age is past surely. Perhaps it would arrive with a sense of mild disappointment, irritation. Or perhaps its mark is sheer bafflement.

Peter Doig is in his late thirties and his paintings have been in the public eye, here and there, for most of the decade. Previously they haven't done much for me. Now he has a dozen large canvasses (plus some little pictures), mainly quite recent work, at the Whitechapel Gallery. And now I think: well this is definitely something, but I don't know what or where it's coming from, and this all seems a good sign.

Actually, they're quite difficult to describe. Landscapes, obviously. Snow-scapes, ski-slopes, forests, stretches of water, sometimes with a figure or two, sometimes more. Doig, British-born, grew up in Canada. But outdoors-painting seems a better name than landscapes - save for the quite important point that none of them were painted outdoors, nor exactly from memory, but from photos and postcards and sometimes from film-stills, and that shows.

It shows in the way the scenes, in themselves, are often not very interesting: normal, uneventful, corny, or too inexplicit even to be odd. Someone looks at his reflection in a pool. Someone shouts over a lake. Someone looks at a view. Turned into big pictures they become significant, but it feels like a private significance. But that's just to look at them as images. Keep looking, and sooner or later things start not quite making sense.

In Jetty for example, you see a rather standard romantic view framed by what look like towering conifers - which turn out to be half-transparent. In Figure in Mountain Landscape on the other hand - well, you see clearly enough what the image is, a back-turned person doing a painting in some pointy-hooded garment, but what's going on in the painting of that garment is very hard to imagine.

Doig's picture's are full of calculated uncertainties, discontinuities, overloads. Style-wise, he'll have a miscellaneous range of registers coexisting in a single picture - something turgid and expressionist, something crisp and graphic, something vague and atmospheric, each picking up from each other. He'll do a little stylised shape-making, to depict a puckered snow surface or a lattice of twigs or water ripples - and then elaborate it and let it breed into a decorative passage with a life of its own.

He treats paint as its own graffiti, to obscure or deface the images it's made. This happens as an overt joke in Snowballed Boy, where a figure in a field of snow is half-obliterated by lumps of white paint flung at the picture. It happens more elusively all over Ski Jacket, a crowded snow panorama, where the dabs of coloured paint that stand for distant figures jostle with thrown blobs, and are echoed elsewhere in free formations of pure dots. Meanwhile, the snow turns through different colours, pinks and yellows, at will, so to speak.

The repertoire of textures is various - the paint goes down in runs, spatters, sprays, curdles, crusts, stains, glazes, smears, splats. But it often gives a perverse or arbitrary stress to the image. An isolated element in the middle distance may be singled out for heavy treatment - in Echo Lake, why does the roof-luggage of the parked car (but not the car itself) get such a wad of impasto?There's a big disjunction between the pictures seen from far and from near. Close up they have a micro life that seems independent of the image as a whole. And the colour world here is extreme, sometimes saccharine, sometimes poisonous. You get opulent melting mixtures of mozzarella, bubble-gum and fairy liquid, you get sudden jumps.

So this is an art given to excess, proliferation, hybridity, contrariety. But it's not - as with several of his contemporaries - a witty or ironic art, the sort that plays with painting's conventions. It's too mobile and too miscellaneous, too gorged. It's exhilarating in its opportunism, the sense that a picture could do anything, go any way.

You could call it quite druggy - not so much in any particular weirdnesses of imagery or handling, but in the general process of viewing that it invites - the attention drawn here and there, dwelling intensely on one thing after another, but with the whole thing continually deferred, just out of mind. Yet what I think is actually baffling, and most arresting, and encouraging, about Doig's work is the feeling that there really is some whole thing behind it. That mere activity, however, is not its only business. That there's something to be understood here, with time. A new thing, in other words.

Peter Doig, Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel High St, London E1 (0171- 522 7878/0171 522 7878) until 16 August. Closed Mondays, admission free.