Arts review: Adrian Wiszniewski | Ken Currie

Ken Currie's 'Dead Finches. Picture: Contributed
Ken Currie's 'Dead Finches. Picture: Contributed
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IN SUPERB shows by Adrian Wiszniewski and Ken Currie, we see two artists at the peak of their powers in both technique and ideas

Adrian Wiszniewski RSA: New Paintings and Works on Paper

Compass Gallery, Glasgow

Rating: *****

Ken Currie: New Etchings & Monotypes

Glasgow Print Studios

Rating: *****

In Paris in 1913, the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was, by all accounts, a near riot. The work’s subtitle was Pictures of Pagan Russia and it represented a primitive fertility ritual with, at its climax, a chosen maiden dancing to her death, wedded to the earth in exchange for the renewal of spring. If the bourgeois were shocked by the wild erotic primitivism of both the music and the dance (it was choreographed by Nijinsky), the artists were thrilled. JD Fergusson, for instance, saw the ballet and his great painting of the same year, Les Eus, in which life-size naked men and women dance in a kind of Eden echoes its orgiastic mood. Acknowledging Fergusson, Adrian Wiszniewski has now taken up the theme in a body of new work inspired by Stravinsky’s music and also decorating the cover of a new CD by the David Patrick Octet.

The 1913 performance was certainly a musical revolution, but Wiszniewski thinks that Stravinsky also had another, hidden revolutionary agenda. The year 1913, he points out, was the tercentenary, widely celebrated in Russia, of the Romanov dynasty. Among the official celebrations, Fabergé made the most elaborate of all his elaborate eggs, a masterpiece of pointlessness in art and the epitome of a Russian regime fatally detached from reality. Stravinsky’s tumultuous, earth-bound music was the voice of a very different Russia. Wiszniewski suggests it was in fact a piece of closet revolutionary propaganda and his painting, Russian Red 1913, personifies this in the figure of a young man in peasant dress, leaning against a tree and holding a fork. Beside him, in a theme common to all these paintings, flowers surge with the preternatural energy of Jack of the Beanstalk’s beans. In a drawing, too, in place of his innocuous fork, the young man is holding a spiked club more suitable for a Peasants’ Revolt. The largest of the pictures that reflect the music directly, however, is The Dances of the Young Maidens, but, instead of maidens, surging, animate forms of growth rise up from the green earth against a blue sky.

The key figure in the music is The Chosen One, the girl whose fate it is to dance to her death. In a little sketch, Wiszniewski paints her collapsed as though near the end, both of her dance and her life. In another particularly beautiful picture, pale and chaste looking, she gazes out past us with enormous eyes, foreseeing her fate. The artist has wiped the paint so that she seems insubstantial, as though we too were seeing a vision. The most elaborate version of her image, however, and the one used on the cover of the CD, shows her looking wistfully out at us from within a tangle of flower stems, their rampant growth about to envelop her like the briars that enveloped Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The girl is disappearing before our eyes, not just into the earth, to which by the dance she is wedded, but into the huge anonymity of nature. The picture is painted on a square, hung diagonally to make a diamond, and this format suggests it is just a fragment, that the surging growth extends indefinitely beyond the picture’s edge. In two other images, however, Wiszniewski personifies the force that overwhelms her as the devil himself. In the Devil’s Prize, like Persephone carried off by Pluto to the Underworld, the chosen girl is carried off by a monstrous, demonic figure, wreathed in flames. In Devil’s Fingernails, this same figure is shown under the earth with his fingers growing up into the landscape above. Thus the devil is seen as the untamed energy of “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” It is as though the energy of Stravinsky’s music itself really is demonic. Well, the devil does have all the best tunes, after all. There is much else in this lovely show, but Wiszniewski’s rich and sinuous style of painting, where energy surges beneath the fluent control of his drawing, is a perfect match for Stravinsky’s music.

The landscape in Wiszniewski’s Devil’s Fingernails recalls the wonderful woodcuts that William Blake did as illustrations to Virgil that also inspired Samuel Palmer. I found myself thinking about Blake, too, going round Ken Currie’s stunning new prints with the artist at Glasgow Print Studios. Not that his work suggests Blake remotely in style. It was more his excitement at the process itself, not as something merely technical, though he was generous in his acknowledgement of the pool of skills on which he could draw at the Print Studios, but as an imaginative adventure. It was as though each print was not an idea imposed on an inert plate, but a discovery of something hidden there with a life of its own, waiting to be revealed. It reminded me of how Blake described the etching process as “corrosives, ... melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” Currie’s prints in the show are both etchings and monotypes and in the monotypes, too, there is a similar process of discovery, for in them the artist works from dark to light, wiping away paint or ink till an image emerges from the gloom.

Some of Currie’s prints display the bleak imagery familiar in his paintings. One striking group of monotypes, for instance, consists of dark portraits of bog people, Iron Age cadavers excavated from the peat-bogs of Ireland and elsewhere in the north. Very often victims of human sacrifice, they feature significantly in Seamus Heaney’s poetry and he wrote how “the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles.” Ken Currie makes the fierce, battered faces seem victims, not just of distant human sacrifice, but of time itself as we all live it.

In a similar vein is his vivid etching of Thomas Muir. His face was partly blown away by a British shell while he was a prisoner on a Spanish ship and so in the etching half of it is invisible in deep shadow. This is Muir’s two hundred and fiftieth anniversary. He was the third, but unnamed hero, alongside Wallace and Bruce in Burns’s Scots wa’ hae, and was victim of a judicial system in Scotland two hundred years ago every bit as partisan as the one we are scandalised to read about in modern Egypt. Currie recently painted a portrait of Muir, now in the Lillie Art Gallery, for the anniversary. In an etching derived from David’s famous picture of Marat as a martyr of the French Revolution, Currie also makes the connection between Marat and Muir. In a striking detail of history, it was David who officially received Muir when he eventually reached Paris.

But while images like these are familiar in Currie’s work, there is much here that is less loaded, but every bit as impressive. A piece of meat hung up in the butcher’s like Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, turned upside down becomes a strange image of a face; a dead gannet found on the beach emerges from an aquatinted ground as though from the sand in which it was buried; a mark on a plate has grown into the eye of some monstrous beast. Images like these and many others are autonomous. They need no gloss. A new departure for Currie too is landscape. He is a keen fisherman and these relaxed, almost romantic monotypes recall the pleasures of the Highlands experienced from within. Altogether these are prints of real power and originality. His exhibition shows us an artist who rejoices in his medium and how, too, it rejoices with him. Alongside Wiszniewski’s paintings, we have here two image-makers of the highest order and those who suppose installation and conceptual art will inherit the earth are proven wrong.

• Adrian Wiszniewski until 25 September; Ken Currie until 18 October