Genius of the Boy – Ken Currie

September 21, 2002

Imagine being Ken Currie. You get up, breakfast with the kids, kiss the wife goodbye and put in a day at the studio. Having done ethnic cleansing, fascism, torture, famine, poverty, self-mutilation, lynch mobs and the Holocaust in your time, you’ve recently completed three paintings of surgical wounds. Currently you’re putting the finishing touches to a canvas featuring four thugs brutalising an unseen victim.

Not long ago he had an exhibition in Carlisle, afterwards they sent him the comments book. Most of the responses were very positive, but there was the occasional note of concern. “One of the most common perceptions is that I’m somehow sick or disillusioned because of the nature of the work,” he says, and smiles his engagingly puckish smile. “At the back of my mind I realise there are people who might think ‘this guy needs help’.”

This is the first and last joke of the interview. It’s not that Currie is a humourless man, but he is one of a dwindling band of artists whose work does not come wrapped in teasing inverted commas. He is serious about painting: morally, technically, politically, intellectually, mortally serious. To spend a morning with him is to recall a time when there was an agreed hierarchy of values with art, ideas and social justice at the top, and shopping, media static and celebrity sex lives pretty near the bottom. We all talk about dumbing-down, but it takes an artist as uncompromising as Currie to illustrate just how profoundly the culture has changed.

In the world of niche marketing, where every idiosyncratic taste is catered to, Currie makes paintings for art consumers who believe that Things Still Matter. That much we can safely say. Now comes the riskier proposition: that his work is more than just another product in the commodity cornucopia. We’re talking about greatness. Not brilliance, that bauble of youth and fashion; or innovation, which so often turns out to be dimestore novelty; but a more timeless quality. It’s a daunting thought for the interviewer: no-one wants to seem over-credulous, the very word carries a wide-eyed suggestion of adolescent earnestness, but the question needs to be asked: is Ken Currie a great artist?

Gulled by his hollow-eyed self-portraits, I was expecting him to look ravaged. In fact he’s sleek as a Labrador. A little grey in that discreet goatee, slightly more substantial than the last time I saw him: 42 years old and in his prime. We met last ten years ago. He was one of the celebrated new Glasgow Boys: the painter who put the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and John Maclean on the walls of the People’s Palace. Though even then his focus had switched away from popular local subject matter to a more harrowing exploration of post-Soviet chaos in Eastern Europe.

In some ways he was cursed by early fame. Everyone loved Currie, Wiszniewski, Campbell and Howson. They were young and Scottish at a time when the Scots were the last bastion against Thatcherism. “If you become successful with a particular body of work at a particular time you become entombed,” he says. He still meets people who expect him to be painting workers with red flags.

He exhibits regularly in London and has been shown in Sydney, Toronto, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Oslo, Milan and Copenhagen over the past decade, but at home his stock has fallen. “The Glasgow Boys are the scum of the earth now.” The national Gallery of Modern Art was approached about holding a modest exhibition to coincide with the launch of a new book about him. It politely declined. The show will now take place at Glasgow School of Art, Currie’s alma mater. Since he has just been appointed visiting professor there, it’s hard to know how literally to take this talk of “scum”. Certainly he’s not the darling of the art world he once was.

His work is informed by an awareness of the history of painting and an engagement with the history of ideas. The contemporary art world isn’t interested in that stuff. “This idea of intellectual seriousness is laughable now, deeply unfashionable.” He’s working against the grain of the age. Not that this bothers him. “Irony is the spirit of the age,” he says. He hates all that: postmodern relativism; the blurring boundaries between the media, advertising and the visual arts; the voices that say “don’t take things too seriously, let’s not get all worked up about things”.

Since the 1980s his work has travelled a dramatic distance. It’s hard to believe the same hand painted the stylishly colourful images of political agitators in 1986, the monochrome death masks suspended in black space ten years later, and the quasi-photographic close-ups of surgical wounds completed this year – though each slots neatly into the encyclopaedia of atrocity that is Currie’s body of work to date. At one point, explaining the influence of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch on his development as a painter, Currie refers to Munch’s death-haunted domestic life, the members of his family carried off by sickness. It’s an interesting connection to hear in the mouth of an artist who claims that the darkness of his own work has no personal dimension.

In that interview ten years ago he talked extensively about his early life. It had all the ingredients of the classic working-class Bildungsroman: the boy misfit in Barrhead, interested in books and ideas, not football; a miserable two years when he tried to put his socialist ideals into practice as artist-in-residence on a Glasgow housing scheme. None of this fully explains his preoccupations. Having children may have influenced his paintings over the past eight years, he concedes – after all, it changes everything – but beyond that he sees no correlation between his life and the work. It’s not about whether he’s happy or unhappy, he says scornfully. “Of course you feel happy, but there are larger questions. It’s not really an issue about my personal state of mind. I’m just taking a responsibility as a human being for being conscious and aware of what’s going on in the world.”

It’s all too easy when writing about Ken Currie to present him as a Calvinist in a paint-streaked T-shirt, thundering from his secular pulpit about the evils of the world, reminding us we’re all worms of the dust. But he is first and foremost a visual artist. He loves looking, and he loves to paint what he sees. Earlier this year he was commissioned to do a portrait of three Dundee oncologists. The research involved watching them remove a bowel tumour. Describing this, his eyes shine. Not for nothing is it called an operating theatre, he says: the surrounding darkness, the spotlit action. He was quaking in his boots, but found it visually irresistible. “The colours were absolutely rich: oranges, purples, greens, blues. It was actually beautiful, really beautiful to watch.” His most urgent thought was: “How do you translate something with this sensuous beauty into a painting?”

He’s an instinctual painter. He doesn’t wake up and decide to do a canvas about ethnic hatred or urban deprivation. He reads books and newspapers, holds conversations, watches television, goes to other artists’ exhibitions, and out of all that gets visual ideas. The image comes first. Doing the small preliminary drawing, the question in his mind is “will it work as a painting?” It’s only as he’s working on the image that he’ll begin to see what it could allude to. “The mystery of the work continues for the artist. If the picture becomes too locked into a particular interpretation it ceases to be interesting as a painting. It starts to die as an idea.”

He wants each canvas to work like a line of poetry, he says, something you can come back to at different points in your life, discovering different resonances. In contrast to his didactic work in the mid-1980s, with its cartoon lines, his more recent paintings tend to be blurred images operating on a number of levels simultaneously. Since the mid-1990s he has employed a distinctive background, a blue-blackness of infinite depth, an emotionally suggestive nothingness. Contemplating this darkness is a visceral experience. On the one hand it is rich, sumptuous, a feast for the eyes, the viewer may even start to salivate; but it is also a representation of emptiness. The effect of placing the image against such a background is hard to translate into words. It may be experienced through a quickening heart-beat, a hollow feeling in the chest, even the prick of tears.

Ten years ago it seemed that death didn’t count in Currie’s work unless it was reckoned in the hundreds or thousands. The paintings were disturbing, frightening, bleakly powerful, but always about “them”, whoever they might be. Now the focus is the individual. Now, whatever their ostensible subject, the paintings are about us. He has worked hard over the years to eliminate the element of painterly bravura. No visible brush strokes, no showing off. “I’m trying to go for a slightly ephemeral, soft-seeming half-gleam in the darkness. There’s movement in it: is it coming out of the darkness or going into the darkness? I want it to be completely purged of the idea of the positive gesture, so people can’t approach these works and say, ‘oh yeah, I know how these are done’. I want people to be completely bemused and bewildered by them: ‘What the hell is that?’”

Three years ago he painted a series of ghostly figures with a haunting blueish aura under the group title “Residuum”. He was trying to achieve an effect like a chemical residue on the surface of something, he explains. First he painted the figures, then he took a bottle of turps and erased each one a little more until, in the final painting, there was nothing there at all. “It was deeply satisfying to me, just a black canvas.”

Like his paintings, Currie’s conversation often contains tantalisingly disparate layers of meaning. Here, there’s the sense of the artist as ascetic, purging himself along with his paintings: a monk-like artistic dedication which, in the early 1990s when the charcoal was getting into his lungs, came close to the hair shirt. But there’s also a suggestion of signs and wonders: the painter’s involvement in the creation of an art which is, ultimately, beyond human agency.

Tom Normand, senior lecturer in Art History at St Andrews University, hints at this in Ken Currie: Details of a Journey. “Painting affords a glimpse into that ‘otherness’ that is metaphysical …,” Normand writes, “[providing] a space where the metaphysical can become ‘real’.” Then there are the motifs which recur in Currie’s paintings: the cloth showing a human outline with its echoes of the Turin Shroud, the aura around his figures, the glowing objects suspended from the void… Is he a mystic?

“It just looks like that,” he says. He’s heavily influenced by the tradition of western art, which has a Christian bias, so he borrows religious iconography. People assume there’s a spiritual and religious element, but he’s using it in a secular way. His theme is mortality. Not death, he says carefully. His intention is to turn the viewer’s thoughts back towards life. “There’s a finite time here and you have to make the best of it. There isn’t something round the corner.”

How much more stark that message is for those given some appalling raw deal just because of where they’re born and then bombarded with images of beautiful bodies, all the beautiful things money can buy. “You can feel people’s anger: ‘how the **** did I end up here?’ The fatalists would say, ‘C’est la vie, you’ll never change it,’ but I think we all know it can be changed, it’s not some eternal set-up, it can be fixed.” In his youth he joined the Communist Party, then signed up to its successor, Democratic Left. Is he still a member? He pulls that puckish grin again: “I still receive mail from them, yeah.”

His art is where he is most politically active these days. A qualified activism. “No-one’s got any illusions about art’s ability to change society, but it can engage in a dialogue with the viewer, and there’s the possibility that the viewer will start to ask questions, and out of that process may realise the possibility of change and act on that.”

In illustration he takes a painting completed four years ago, the whitely luminous figure of a naked child against a black background. “What I’m trying to do is attract the viewer with an image which has a glowing quality, a softness and a light, a gentleness, almost. People gravitate towards those things. I’m trying to lead them in and then reveal the true nature of the painting.” The title of the work is Shot Boy 1. The child is dead, his pale corpse riddled with bullet holes. “It creates this element of dislocation, a slight shock, and out of that shock comes a questioning process: ‘how can this artist have painted this and painted it in such a beautiful way?’ What happens after that is up to the viewer, as long as it produces a thought process that’s enough.”

From socialist realism with an agit-prop edge, through nightmare visions of mob hatred and massacre, to a more individual concern with the eternal crisis of mortality. Does this say something about the world over the past 20 years, or is it merely the trajectory of youth into middle age? He laughs: he doesn’t know. “It sometimes worries me, this: I think I’m having these massive epiphanies every day when I wake up, whereas they’re just the normal everyday epiphanies everyone gets.”

It gets harder and harder to paint, he says. Constantly fighting the obvious, challenging his own abilities, seeing how far he can go. But there are satisfactions too. Knowing that he is now producing less obvious, more slow-burning, stiller work. “I think I might just be beginning to get better as a painter.”

A great artist? It would be fatuous for me to try to answer that. Only posterity can truly provide an answer. But if sensibility, rigour, engagement and mystery are components of greatness, he’s certainly in the running. It might not be fashionable, but he has important things to say. If this guy needs help, then so do we all.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications