Ahead of his first exhibition in Scotland for 13 years, Ken Currie tells Susan Mansfield how ‘the terror’ of mortality informs his work
I get a shock when I meet Ken Currie. I’ve been looking at the paintings for his show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Many feature the same figure, balding, slight paunch, questioning eyes. He looks at us furtively over his shoulder; in one case, stares up from the mortuary slab. But I didn’t expect to meet him in the flesh.
“Yeah, there is a resemblance,” Currie says, thoughtfully, admitting me to his Glasgow studio, a quiet, airy space with soft, grey light from roof windows. “I think it’s because I’m the only person here. I don’t work with models, so if I’m looking for people in particular situations or poses, the most obvious person to use is me.”
And that’s that. Currie makes no secret of disliking interviews, though he’s no stranger to them. He was thrust into the spotlight in his early twenties as one of the forthright band of young figurative painters known as the New Glasgow Boys. For a few years in the late 1980s, they rode the zeitgeist, conquering Glasgow, London, New York. “Back then I could talk for ever about what I was doing. As I get older I find it increasingly difficult to talk about my work.”
With the benefit of hindsight, he says, it all seemed “ridiculously premature”. “I see now that I had a long developmental road ahead of me. The good thing about all that was that the focus of attention didn’t last very long. It had all simmered down by about 1989 and I was able to retreat from that intense glare and develop what I’m doing. It’s only been in the last ten years or so that I’ve felt I’m beginning to get to grips with what it is I’m trying to do.”
Of his New Glasgow Boys peers, Currie has done most to avoid the spotlight. Peter Howson’s fall and rise has been widely documented in the media. Adrian Wiszniewski famously – and publicly – gave up painting, only to take it up again a few years later. Steven Campbell enjoyed a period of prolific creativity before his untimely death in 2007. Currie, however, hunkered down, kept quiet and kept painting. He continued to show with his gallery, Flowers, in London and New York, but has shown little in Scotland. This summer’s exhibition is his first solo show on home turf for 13 years.
Currie grew up in Barrhead and graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1983. His best known early works were large-scale crowd scenes, vibrant and violent, usually politically charged. As the glare of the spotlight retreated, his paintings became quieter, focused on smaller groups, single figures. He considered abstraction and rejected it. He continued to be fascinated by “politics, history, those kind of things that artists aren’t meant to be interested in”. In conversation, he is serious, opinionated, cerebral, with an undercurrent of dark humour. He loves irony.
He has painted a handful of portraits, including the Three Oncologists, which has become one of the most iconic contemporary works in the SNPG collection. But, like his idol, Francis Bacon, he prefers not to work from life. He painted the cancer specialists after watching them at work in the operating theatre and having a life mask made of each man’s face. “Even as student, I had a complete abhorrence of the life room, I couldn’t stand this idea of doing mechanical recording of a figure in front of me, it felt like a complete abnegation of the ability to think, to use your imagination.”
In recent years, he has developed a profound interest in the body, physical and metaphorical. He says he is “distracting himself” from the up and coming SNPG show by working on two large-scale faces, hanging on the back wall of the long room. One has a black eye, the other raw patches of skin, but whether ravaged by violence or illness or just by life itself, he isn’t saying.
Paintings must speak for themselves. Nothing – not even the views of the artist – should disturb the encounter between viewer and work. Currie once destroyed a painting after someone said too definitely that it was about the banking crisis. “The minute someone can pin something down, the painting dies a death. It would really upset me if people came out of the exhibition saying ‘I know what all that was about’. They should come out and say: ‘What was all that about?’ because that means they are continuing to think. I don’t want to produce easy images. I want to produce paintings that have that impact on people. Paintings can be terrifying in all sorts of ways, but the worst thing is for paintings to be ignored.”
In 2011, he presented a new body of work at Flowers which he called ‘Immortality’. Timeless but prescient, they were paintings that spoke of the trappings of power, sartorially dressed men and vapid women, clinging to wealth, fame or class. Currie was dissecting what portraiture does with the same unflinching attention he pays to all his subjects. The title is, of course, ironic. The powerful think that they can cheat death. The laugh of it is, they can’t.
The new work follows on from that, but the tone is different. These pictures don’t try to deny mortality, they stare it in the face: the royally dressed figure, lying in state, like one of Velasquez’s popes; the man on the slab while a death mask is being made; the man making the death mask, furtively glancing up towards the viewer. Several feature mirrors, doubles, doppelgangers: these are paintings made to be shown in the city of Hogg and Stevenson. “If it’s about anything, it’s about a meditation on the nature of what portraits are, and an even deeper question about the nature of the self. What are we exactly? When you look in the mirror, is that you? What is you? What is a person?”
The guiding spirit of the show is Velasquez (“For years and years I thought he was one of these dreadful court painters, then the scales fell from my eyes and I saw that he was god –it’s been worship ever since!”) with a dose of Samuel Beckett (think of those lonely figures articulating their own isolation on a dark stage). It is mature work, a marriage of content and technique which takes many years to master. If, that is, you ever really master it.
“Every single day it’s like the mist is continuously clearing on some peak, you think you’ve got to the top and then another peak appears,” says Currie. “And it just goes on and on and on like that, until you drop dead.” He laughs without mirth, and it’s hard to tell how ironic he’s being.
Mortality has always interested him but now, in his early fifties, it is “a bit of a terror”. “Because a certain point comes in your life when you do actually see that there is an end. I think it does make the creative process more intense. You feel time slipping, and so you think ‘I’ve got to try and make work that I’m pleased with,’ which is an illusory thing, because you’re never going to be happy with what you’re doing.
“I think that’s the way it has always been for most artists – permanent dissatisfaction, permanent despair. The last couple of sentences in Beckett’s trilogy is ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ That’s exactly what it’s like. I’m on the verge of giving up every day. Every day, I think, I can’t do this, I’m finished with this whole art thing, it’s crazy, it’s going to kill me, I can’t do it any more. And then the next day you come in and think, ‘God, that’s really interesting the way the paint delineates that eye.’ And you go on.”
Ken Currie: New Work is at Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, today to 8 September