ART / The twilight zone: Adrian Searle finds Peter Doig, youngest of the artists on the Turner Prize shortlist, 'doing Friedrich after Xerox'

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Peter Doig thinks he is probably 'the people's choice' for this year's Turner Prize. The people, of course, don't have a choice, but Doig acknowledges that he might be taken for a populist candidate. And for an audience baffled by installations, irritated by ready-mades and repelled by things that go off in the night, Doig's paintings have a lot going for them.

It is snowing, but it is not snowing much. A boy stands on a frozen pond, staring down at his reflection in the ice. This painting, Blotter, won Doig the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool last year. A companion work, Windowpane, shows the same icy margin, the same bare birches, the same light snowfall, registered on the picture's surface in small gobbets of thrown pigment. The prosaic imagery veils a little-noticed fact: the titles refer to 'long-forgotten brands of LSD'. There is something peculiarly hallucinatory about Doig's work. His paintings are like old memories with the colour and contrast turned up too high: things are too intense, and the world is beginning to dissolve.

At 35, Doig is the youngest of the four contenders for the prize. He was born in Edinburgh, but grew up in rural Quebec and Ontario, returning to Britain in 1979. He did a three-year stretch at St Martin's, where I remember him painting rodeo cowboys galloping over the bluffs of a spray-canned Manhattan. He completed an MA at Chelsea, painting Christmas-card deer drinking from a Christmas-card pond. He worked as a dresser at Covent Garden (his Nureyev stories are alarming, and unrepeatable) and as a set-painter. He also made an appearance as a Soviet soldier in Derek Jarman's Remembering October in 1984. The movies are an obsession.

For over a decade Doig has lived and worked near King's Cross. You have to step over the drunks to get into the studio. By day, the neighbourhood's anaesthetic of choice is Special Brew, by night, crack. Why doesn't he paint this? 'It's too close,' he says. Canada seems a long way off (discounting those oversaturated, blown-up colour photos of autumn in the Rockies which decorate the local cafes). But hicksville Canada dominates Doig's paintings: rural scenes, landscapes and buildings - idiosyncratic pictures, as beguiling and atmospherically laden as film stills. Their painterliness results not from spontaneity, but from a buried accumulation of references: careful plotting, the right tracking angle, homing-in on the telling detail.

Talk ambles from Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere ('The barmaid is just a way in. Once you're inside the painting she disappears'), to the design of 1970s ski-jackets ('They were all horrible, but there was a lot of status involved in which one you wore'); from Wayne's World 2 ('Quintessentially Canadian, but pretending to be about the US'), to ice hockey - Doig is a keen player. And why was it, he wonders, that Edward Hopper never painted snow - though he would have been great at it, and his winters must have been interminable? Hopper has always been a big influence, partly because nothing is really happening in his paintings: they're all about focus, mood and presence.

Doig's imagery can teeter on the winsome: a farm-boy running away from home; a truck lighting up the forest as it drones along a country black-top; night fishermen in a canoe, adrift under an irradiated sky; a rundown boarding-house in a squalid part of town. This is the terrain - psychological and geographic - familiar from Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, Tom Waits's ballads and, of course, the sublime but malevolent territory of Twin Peaks.

These strange hinterlands also appear in last year's somewhat untypical sequence of paintings called Concrete Cabins, depicting the cement and steel cliffs of a Corbusier development in north-east France, seen through the trees that surround it. Although Corbusier always intended La Unite to be set among woodland, an ideal meeting between nature and culture, Doig invests the scene with a sense of loss; the woods are dark and overgrown, while the building glimpsed through the branches rears into view like a vast ruin. The idylls of nature and the utopian dreams of early Modernism are crumbling into disharmonious, brooding decay.

Writing about Doig, it is tempting to list his references, as though their pedigree will somehow underwrite the paintings. A mix of personal and art history, anecdote and irony informs the work of this warily 'post-modernist' painter. He works from his own photographs, from newspaper and magazine pictures (back numbers of National Geographic are a great source), from art-book repros and cinematic stills. A recent painting of a figure on a pier, silhouetted against the backdrop of a glacier comes from a newspaper photograph which Doig has photocopied, copying the copy through so many generations that the image has broken down into a granular smudge, the mechanically degraded subject reduced to the trace of a human presence against the looming, ambiguously abstracted form of the glacier. While Cezanne was interested in re-doing Poussin 'after nature', Doig re-does Caspar David Friedrich after Xerox.

Doig's loping, casual manner allows the references to be lightly worn. He likes to describe his work as bricolage, a DIY, accumulative process. This is disingenuous, of course, but a calculated, loose-limbed demeanour helps the paintings breathe, and stops them getting bogged down in fussy realism.

His images flicker and hover in the paint just as they do in consciousness; they exist in the twilight zone between memory and fantasy, but it is a place made concrete. These paintings court sentimentality, but they are too uneasy, too awkward, too gawky to be merely picturesque: they're postcards from the edge.

The Turner Prize shortlist exhibition is at the Tate, SW1 (071-887 8000) from 2 Nov-Dec 4 (Photograph omitted)

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