Peter Doig's recent show of 15 paintings and works on paper include images of a man sitting in a drifting canoe, two people in fancy dress standing between low walls covered in rough bright tiles, a spectral child hovering amid the tangled branches of a grey tree, a desolate tunnel adorned with a clumsy rainbow, and a distant couple entwined in a lonely embrace. Roads, oceans and rivers dominate, but the journeys they hint at are solitary ones. The overall mood is melancholy and nocturnal, even when light has bleached the details white. Although the show is titled '100 Years Ago', time doesn't feel important; a minute can feel like a year if the feeling is intense enough. As in the world, surfaces are uneven and animated; occasionally they are tired. These are grand narratives that have no story to tell except the one you want to tell yourself, yet they draw you in as effectively as a camp fire; images of exile that make you feel less alone.
This is Doig's first solo show in London since 1998. One of the great things about it is the way it won't let your imagination alone; one moment you're in the suburbs, bored and underage, the next a long way from home preoccupied with Monet, the wrecked splendour of human isolation or the fact that snowflakes and stars look alike when seen through a twilight mist.
In order to absorb all these pictures have to offer you have to slow down. You think you get one, and then the next changes key; degrees of intensity and focus shift restlessly about, not only from painting to painting but within isolated areas. In parts they made me think of country music, especially the late Townes Van Zandt, who wrote heartbreaking, pared-down songs in which the smallest moments and movements become charged allegories. When Van Zandt sings 'The winter howled high round the mountain's breast, and the cold of a thousand snows lay heaped upon the forest sleep', you know he's not just singing about the weather in the same way you know that Doig isn't simply painting pictures about snow or swamps or a horse that bows its head in sadness. Perhaps such confusion allows for some compensation: despite everything, these are paintings that remind you that if all else fails the moon will still rise, beautiful in its lonely ascent.
At every step these images resist the idea that a picture, or your perception of a picture, can be either ordered or logical. Take, for example, 100 Years Ago (Carrerre)(2001), a painting of a bearded, long-haired man dressed in black sitting in a canoe. He looks a little like a Heavy Metal fan or a Dead Head. The canoe is a vivid sweep of burnt orange; the figure of the man a sombre note played amid the dark swell of water that gets lighter as it approaches the small island behind him, glowing beneath a gloomy sky. The man seems to be absorbed with whoever is looking at him. The atmosphere is vaguely ominous - the canoe appears to be drifting; it makes you wonder who might suffer if it drifted ashore. It also reads like a homage to history painting: it's impossible not to think of the man-and-nature aspect of German Romanticism, most obviously Arnold Böcklin's paintings of the Island of the Dead. But - and here's the rub - the man is nothing in 100 Years Ago, dwarfed by what surrounds him, yet this is not to say he is insignificant. In the same way that music touches everything around it, here the paint itself democratizes the relationship between the man and his environment: the expanse of water is as concentrated as a hair. The great horizontal swathes of colour force you to think about paint in the same way a blizzard makes you think about snow. Every brushstroke is applied with a loving indifference to a hierarchy of meaning, as if Doig is equally in thrall to 19th-century painting and 1970s bands; the sky and skin.
One of the more intriguing aspects of these pictures is the way they allude to altered states - dreams, hallucinations and reveries saturate their surfaces - but the means by which Doig has achieved this is remarkably restrained: tiny shifts in intensity create a subtle sense of dislocation. Take, for example, Grand Riviere (2001-2), a fantastically complex image of swamp-like desolation. It comprises a few seemingly innocuous components: trees, water, an empty boat, a lone white horse and a sky. The paint is by turns animated, reticent and yet utterly unified; hints of cerulean hover above a verdant green, while the horse grazes beneath ghostly dribbles of translucent white. The atmosphere is humid and still, yet at any moment you expect the stillness to be startled. But then perhaps startling their own stillness is what good paintings do best; they let you expect the things you don't expect to see.