Peter Doig has been seen in a few solo and group shows in New York, Chicago, and Santa Monica over the past fifteen years, but for most Americans who follow contemporary art he remains a hazy figure whose work has been more talked about than viewed. Yet while the artist, who grew up in Canada and has lived in London and Trinidad, hasn’t been seen here in full force (or perhaps because of this), he has attracted a certain following, especially among people chiefly involved with painting. A little bit like Eric Fischl in the early 1980s—in his canvases showing adolescents and adults in sometimes uncomfortably intimate domestic scenes—Doig, it is clear even from reproductions, has been finding ways to make strikingly new kinds of images using age-old themes and materials. It is unfortunate that Tate Britain’s recent survey of the forty-nine-year-old artist’s work couldn’t include an American stop on its tour.
Doig first became known in the early 1990s for paintings of lakes and houses, sometimes seen in snowy, wintry conditions. Later in the decade, he opened up his northern, winter realm to include views of farms, ski runs, and fairs. Even when his substantially sized paintings (about eight feet wide on average) were of summer or autumn scenes, they conveyed roughly the same effect of snow busily falling in every direction. You didn’t just see a canoe on a lake or a house by the side of a road—you saw that subject through a tingling mass of small but distinct details and touches. If Doig’s scenes called for trees or vines, it seemed as if every twig and tendril was presented and felt for itself, becoming almost an abstract web through which we looked to the scene behind it. And while his colors, textures, and forms generally were naturalistic, he could go to wildly fanciful extremes with them, turning the rectangular shapes of a brick wall, for example, into so many little fevered, blotchy abstract paintings.
Adding to the charge of Doig’s paintings was the way they seemed to refer to earlier art without in the process becoming musty or derivative. Swamped (1990), an image of a canoe on a lake which may be an ultimate presentation of a lake’s bubbly, branch-clogged texture, had the crackling intensity of a Jackson Pollock. Doig’s forest pictures, with their sense of distant light cradled by dark trees, recalled Munch, and his way of getting carried away with carpety and lichen-like zones of pure texture brought Vuillard to mind. Yet the world Doig presented was surprisingly of the moment. His pictures suggested something of the loneliness of adolescence and the grubbiness and vague threat of rural places that outwardly have a postcard-like prettiness.
In his images of boys in parkas whiling away gray winter afternoons by iced-over ponds, of skiers and skateboarders, of country houses that we suspect are as dank and disheveled inside as they are romantically enveloped by …