Nearly three years after leaving, he returned to London in 1989 as a master's student at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. The YBAs were just emerging, and swimming against the conceptualist tide, Doig entered one of the most productive periods of his career. At Chelsea he discovered the possibilities of paint, in richly textured surfaces, and how to move away from storytelling to let viewers bring something of their own to the picture. To help catalyze his memories, he sometimes went to Canada House to leaf through its library of images and made paintings that were deliberately “homely”—two deer in the forest, rural cabins glimpsed through trees. In 1991, following a few solo exhibitions, he nabbed a major show at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery by winning an award, and in 1993 his painting Blotter, based on a staged photograph Doig had taken of his brother standing on an icy pond absorbed in his own reflection, won the prestigious John Moores Prize, the UK’s best-known contemporary painting competition. The following year Doig was nominated for the careermaking Turner Prize and landed dealers in London, New York and Berlin.
Doig likes to revisit his subjects, and the lone figure in the landscape is a recurring image. “There’s a hovering darkness in some of his work,” says curator and critic Bruce Ferguson, the former dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, who has known Doig for several years. “At first you say, Oh, a mountain painting with a skier, and then you suddenly think, It’s such a big mountain and such a small skier. There’s a kind of existential terror around the edges.” Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick points to the “Blair Witch feeling” in such iconic Doig paintings as 100 Years Ago, 2001, in which a bearded, long-haired man in black, modeled on Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers, sits becalmed in a canoe in the middle of a lake. “It has the point of view you get in horror movies, where the angle of a camera can make something bucolic suddenly seem very threatening,” says Blazwick, who gave Doig his second solo show in 1986 when she ran London’s Air Gallery.
100 Years Ago was inspired by Matisse’s 1908 Bathers With a Turtle, which Doig calls “one of the greatest paintings I’ve ever seen.” Hearing him describe its merits, you can’t help thinking of Doig’s own paintings: “There’s so much to look at, and yet it’s so empty and so vague in what it’s depicting,” he says. “It’s so brave in its division of space, and it constantly confuses you because you don’t know really what you’re looking at. It seems to be a constantly questioning painting and, in many ways, incomplete.”