By Angela Hou, Translated by Long Xingru, Image Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Ken Currie: Rictus
Flowers Gallery, London
8 November – 9 December 2017
At the end of last year, the renowned Scottish artist Ken Currie had his second solo exhibition realised at London's Flowers Gallery, featuring middle to large scale oil paintings created between 2013 and 2017. Famous in the Western world for his portrait paintings, Currie's inspiration for this exhibition derives from the ways conflict and illness are affecting contemporary society: in his imagined world, he depicts human ruthlessness and vulnerability.
Born in North Shield, Scotland in 1960, Currie pursued his BA and MA in Fine Arts at The Glasgow School of Art during 1978 and 1983, and was labelled one of the “New Glasgow Boys" (founded in 1880) in 1980, along with Peter Howson, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell, who continued to work in the spirit of Scottish art. At a time when abstract art prevailed, Currie, together with his Scottish counterparts, took the alternative path of genre art, based on the Scottish bourgeoisie. Currie became one of the most promising artists in this genre, which re- engaged the public with Scottish art.Since 1990s, Currie has had solo and group exhibitions at venues in Britain and other countries, including the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Influenced by human and wartime conditions, in Glasgow and other European cities during his lifetime, Currie’s paintings deal with the ruthlessness and vulnerability of history, and profoundly touch the subjects of death and pain. A bottomless dark background sets a vital contrast with crystal-clear and silver white skin, and the disfigured, badly mutilated portraits—Currie's works often embed a sense of the uncanny and the mysterious.
From the very beginning, Currie has been deeply inspired by the portrait paintings of Francis Bacon. A leading figure of Fauvism, Bacon’s work flows between the figurative and the abstract: while human outlines are retained, their bodies are distorted, metamorphosed and endowed with striking colors and rough strokes. On the other hand, Currie employs a more figurative approach by peeling the skin and flesh of the portrayed figures in a detailed, delicate fashion. The audience is invited into their world, and encouraged to imagine their pain and suffering, past, present and future. It is simply impossible to view Currie’s artworks with peace of mind. The exhibition welcomes visitors with a visually striking, colossal four-meter-long oil painting, The Flensers. The work reflects the bloody, nightmarish whaling industry of 100 years ago. A whale is skinned and gutted by sweaty flensors who wear sky blue rubber gloves and wade among the guts with their flensing tools. There is subtle resonance between The Flensers and Tiziano Vecelli’s Diana and Actaeon: Curie delicately hangs the pinkish-white whale skin behind the flensers, sarcastically recalling the romantic rosy curtains in Tiziano’s piece. An even more gruesome piece is another giant oil painting, Krankenhaus (2016). Like a solemn symphony performed among the flames of war, the scene takes place in a makeshift First World War hospital. A blood-red rubber tube hangs from the floor, penetrating the body and mouth of a patient; wounded soldiers with prosthetic arms perform on musical instruments and cut up meat; while a doctor looks into the mouth of a naked male patient, using a spoon and candle to bring light to his investigation…we can't help but wonder if we're witnessing the act of healing, or something darker, another sacrifice?
Currie’s practices are often described as “Catharsis”, a term that originates in the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s metaphors on the function of tragedy, in his Poetics. Catharsis refers to a mental purification and purging process, by encouraging the audience to involve their own pity and fear in the tragic storyline. Aside from Bacon, Francisco José de Goya is also inspirational to Currie. The postures and facial expressions in Goya’s early portrait paintings made at the Royal Court can also be detected in Currie’s work. The backgrounds of Currie’s paintings, however, are reminiscent of that of Goya’s late works during his self-exile, such as Saturno devorando a un hijo, in which figures wander among corpses as if specters. In response to the Peninsular War, Goya expressed his inner suffering through depictive paintings featuring themes from ancient Roman myths. Similarly, Currie treats his oeuvre as mirrors of our contemporary issues and historic and political chaos. Martin Hammer (author of Bacon’s biography) has mentioned, in a catalog essay for Currie’s exhibition, that one of the artist’s motivations is to “acknowledge the realities of violence and vulnerability, but from a certain imaginative distance”. Hammer believes that Currie has a notion of catharsis deeply rooted in his paintings. We as viewers might wonder about the meaning of these paintings, but nevertheless, the striking tragedies they illustrate evoke empathy and fear, and hence a state of catharsis.
Currie has a unique understanding of the composition, light and shadow of paintings. He noted of Rembrandt's Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta, “I often feel that they (the illustrated subjects) are about to just fade away into nothingness”. The dark background, the doctor with his spurious smile, and the enervated patient in this painting, all provoked Currie to repetitively examine the chains of life. His most recent works, Whitened Hands (2017) and The Lime Bucket (2017), both feature bleached hands. Bronze toned hands gradually raise from thick, white liquid lime, shining blazingly in the darkness. It is reminiscent of some solemn ritual “Catharsis”, however, some secret seems to hide behind the scene. Another two paintings on view, Hiroshima Smile 1 (2015) and War Paint 3 (2017), embed references from the ruined city of Hiroshima and of unethical human experimentation, altogether an annotation on Currie’s understanding of how little impact our advancing knowledge has on warfare. The Scottish art historian Duncan Macmillan commented of Currie’s work that, if Rembrandt had depicted the first light of the enlightenment, then Currie has illustrated its end.Currie’s mysterious, even bizarre work invites us to question whether we have already approached the end of the Age of Enlightenment – whether we are no longer redeemed by knowledge, but instead seized by its mind-manipulating power?
Artists working with the traditional techniques of oil painting are rarely seen in the 21st century. Since the debut and rise of abstract expressionism after the Second World War, mainstream art has taken a quick, major turn towards mixed media and abstract concepts. Currie, meanwhile, has kept a cautious distance from this trend, holding firmly to the belief that, aside from elaborating concepts and generating creative ideas, training in traditional techniques is equally crucial. Compared to his contemporaries, Currie is particularly focused on the practice of oil painting, which gives to our viewers the keys of his narrative. He rarely makes statements on his works, as he doesn't want them to be drown in meanings. Instead of entrusting connotations to his own work, he is more interested to hear the conversations, consensus and reflection his work triggers. Ken Currie, the contemporary portraitist in his sixties, retains the spirit of revolt. He refuses to employ mixed media or performance for the sake of creating “contemporary art”. On the contrary, he creates a mirror image of our post-war world, and inspires us to question life and morality.
Hospital, oil on canvas, 244.5 x 418 cm, 2016
Hiroshima Smile 1, oil on gesso panel, 40.5 x 30.5 cm, 2015
War Paint #2, oil on panel, 40.5 x 30.5 cm, 2017
Whitened Hands, oil on panel, 46 x 61 cm, 2017
The Lime Bucket, oil on panel, 46 x 6 cm, 2017