Ken Currie

Publication: The Times.     
September 2015

Ken Currie has never shied away from dark, difficult themes such as death, decay and political or social dissidence. A term sometimes applied to his work is ‘chthonic’, meaning related to the underworld. It is as if Currie is tapping into a river of consciousness which runs parallel to the current of contemporary concerns. His work is the antithesis of celebrity culture, the quick fix, junk TV, the fast-paced flickering images that define our modern sensibility.

Currie is primarily a painter and his primary genre is portraiture, in which he excels. His paint has a luminosity where light vibrates like synaptic flashes on the surface of the canvas. Here, in a series of etchings and monotypes, working in conjunction with the highly skilled craftsmen of Glasgow Print Studio, on whose technical expertise he relies, Currie has extended his media and his thematic range.

Currie has long been absorbed by the landscape of Scotland – in particular the northwest, where some of the oldest rocks on the planet may be found – although he has shied away from depicting it.  Here, the Precambrian schist and gneiss have formed over billions of years into mountains such as Suilven. This landscape also held a deep fascination for the poet Norman McCaig and here a subset of nine monotypes pays homage, with one in particular ‘A Man in Assynt,’ showing a lone fisherman set against Suilven’s unmistakable back-drop, recalling MacCaig’s words:

Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out

these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
and left, on the hard rock below – 

the ruffled foreland –

this frieze of mountains, filed 
on the blue air – 

Stac Polly, 

Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven, 

Canisp –

a frieze and 

a litany.

This landscape is kinetic, defined by water. This finds an echo in the monotype process where the manipulation of liquid is a crucial element and successive prints have been created by the subtraction of ink. This can be seen in several series of portraits where the facial characteristics of the subjects have become distorted and gradually erased, echoing the process of death and decay.

‘The Death of Marat’ (I- III) and ‘The Death of Rosa Luxembourg’ (I-III), for example, show successive disintegration in their ‘ghost prints’.  Currie points out that the murder of both revolutionaries were linked to water ­­– Marat in his bath and Luxembourg in the Landwehr Canal, Berlin. These murders have been the subjects of previous treatments by other artists – R.B. Kitaj famously painted the death of Luxembourg in 1960 while Jacques-Louis David depicted the death of Marat in 1793. Currie situates himself in this kind of art historical context. He pays implicit homage to those great artists, especially well known for printmaking, who have gone before him and to whom he owes a debt of gratitude such as Otto Dix, Edvard Munch and Francisco Goya.

Currie is that rare thing – an artist of stature whose work has what Matthew Arnold called ‘high seriousness’ who also retains a genuine accessibility and popularity.