Monday, 15 July 2013

Portrait of an artist who thinks most contemporary art sucks

Ken Currie’s work divides opinion. The story goes that when his ghostly painting Three Oncologists was delivered to the back door of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in February 2002, the porter took one look at it, and, horrified, rang up the head curator. “You’d better come down,” he whined. “We could have a problem.” The curator ran down, fixed his gaze on those three haunted faces, then turned to porter and said: “No problem. That is a masterpiece.” 

Curators are paid well to be correct. A decade later, Three Oncologists is critically acclaimed, the gallery’s top-selling postcard and a never-ending source of fascination for visitors of all ages.  This week, it will be joined in Edinburgh by 11 new pieces  by the artist, in Currie’s first big show in Scotland for a decade. The exhibition, timed to attract the biggest festival crowds, is  not portraiture at all, but a bleak meditation on mortality.

New Works draws out Currie’s obsession with death masks - “strange objects, haunting things” - which began when he saw Himmler’s likeness in the Imperial War Museum. He recalls the perfect, shimmering white of the mask against the rich black velvet on which it rested. Beautiful, yet this was the last image of the most reviled mass murderers in history. It was, he says, a disconcerting sensation. 

That was the early 1990s, but the feeling stayed with him. Ten  years on, he took casts from the three real-life surgeons and used them to complete the Oncologists at his studio in Glasgow's east end. The moulds helped him work out the play of shadow across living faces. 

The latest paintings draw even closer to death. Masks or the process of making them feature in four of these disconcerting images, with their dead or dying subjects encountered in eerie timeless stage sets, as if in a dream. A fifth canvas, Bath House, evokes David’s The Death of Marat, “one of the greatest paintings ever made,” he says. 

It might seem that Currie, 53, has moved away from  his famous life-affirming murals commissioned for the People’s Palace in Glasgow in 1987. Not necessarily. 

“As someone pointed out, even in those pieces, which were meant as a sort of glorification of the march of labour, there are a lot of ambiguities and tensions.” he says. “That was one of the problems I had with the Left: everything had to be this pitched-forward thing. Politics is always about certainty. Temperamentally I was never that kind of person. I am riddled with doubt.”

Fundamentally, he believes, his politics haven’t changed. In 1992, with, among others, the novelist William MacIlvanney and the poet Liz Lochhead, he helped found Artists for Independence. He remains passionate in his support of the Yes Campaign and believes “separation” (Currie rather likes the word) can make a fairer Scotland. 

There are other continuities. Along with Peter Howson, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski, Currie was part of a last great generation of painters to emerge from Glasgow School of Art. He remains the consummate technician with only contempt for the ephemera of the more fashionable end of the contemporary scene. 
He recalls  a timeline at Tate Modern charting the evolution of art into the 21st century and rattles off the list of great names. “Manet, Monet, Van Gogh,” he chants, “into the Cubists, through the Vorticists, then post war, Rothko, Pollock, Warhol. Then, it started to get mushy and ended with all the recent Turner prize winners. Their names in that pantheon! I was rolling on the floor with laughter.”

People have become spectacles, he complains and fame can come without talent. He says: “Too many artists are like that. ‘How do I get the big lens of the media to look at me? I know, I’ll do something crazy like having an exhibition where the lights go off and on.’

“The Turner Prize is not really about art, it’s about media and artists have become media personalities. Everyone has a band; everyone has tattoos; everyone could take fashion photos if they turned their hand to it.” The alternative? “This is the thing I’ve learnt. Ideas are important but there are six million people on Earth and all of them have ideas. What makes an artist’s pearl of wisdom any more important? What's different is a painter has the ability to physically realise the idea. That involves technique. Painting is entirely about technique.” 

He taps his chest. “I do sense there are works to come, in here. I feel there are paintings that need to be made, sense them boiling up. Sometimes I don’t know if they are actual thoughts or just fragments of dreams, but they are there. There is a sense of where they want the work to go.”

New Works will shock. Pray we all live long enough for Currie’s Future Works to emerge.

* Ken Currie - New Works, from 20 July, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

'It means so much for us as a town. We all pull together here.'

In the second row of seating in the Dunblane Centre, a large blonde lady is on her feet shaking her fist: “C'mon Andy this is your time!” she yells. Within seconds, a roar has erupted around her, making the walls bulge as if they might explode. A ball from Novak Djokovic has hit the net and Andy Murray, the local boy, is Wimbledon champion, a national hero.

This was a beautiful day in Dunblane; joyous, exciting, friendly, fulfilled: four hours when locals mingled with the scores of daytrippers, determined to be in this place, at this time, to witness sporting history.

“In Dunblane, we are so grateful to Andy for positive reasons.,” said David Spooner, a trustee of the centre, above the hubbub. “Anywhere you go in the world, people say, 'Where are you from? Dunblane? Where Andy Murray's from? It means so much for us as a town. We pull together.”

It is almost impossible to overstate Murray's importance in this place. At one level, he is the ultimate role model, a young man whose success on the professional tennis circuit has boosted junior membership of Dunblane tennis club tenfold over the last seven years.

More than that, he has helped to eclipse the town's association with the killing of 16 infants and their teacher at the primary school in 1996. Murray was eight when a gunman burst into the gym at the school and opened fire. He and his older brother, Jamie, who was ten at the time, were on their way to the gym and hid under a desk in the headteacher's study.

Money flowed in from well-wishers all over the world to help the community recover, and the Dunblane Centre was built with that cash. Yesterday, Mr Spooner and his staff were able to welcome incomers from almost every corner of the world to watch an astonishing and cathartic game live on the big screen.

One man, driving from Somerset to Caithness, had broken his journey to come here, because he felt Dunblane's magnetic pull. “He told me, 'I'm so chuffed I saw Dunblane celebrate,” said Mr Spooner. “That's the magic of this place.”

Geraldine Diggins, a retired Californian on holiday in Scotland, was rocking in disbelief. “It was absolutely worth the visit,” she said. “I could hardly watch half of it. My head was in my hands for that last bit.”

All day, under a perfect blue sky, the excitement had built. At morning service in the imposing medieval Cathedral, the Rev Sally Foster-Fulton's homily seemed at first a little contentious for some of her parishioners.

“There is a certain tennis match going on today, but God doesn't have favourites,” Ms Foster-Fulton announced, with mock severity. Then: “But we do. Good luck Andy!”

Ten minutes later, in the Church Hall, Elizabeth Smith was taking issue with the minister. “I think everyone has had a secret wee prayer,” said Mrs Smith, who has retired and works in the Mary's Meals Charity Shop. “It will be tense, but I won't even leave the room when the tension gets bad. I think he will do it. This is Andy's year.”

Along the pretty high street of this little town , shop after shop had its window display, its gimmick, its banner. The Beach Tree Cafe was selling green and purple tennis cup cakes, but had a sign in the window announcing: “Due to Andy's Success, we will be closing at 1.30 today so we can all support him.”

A few doors down in McIntyre Funeral Directors there were two notices. One read “SMART. Peacefully in the wonderful care of the team at Strathcarron Hospice.” The other: “Come on Andy You Can Do It!”

He did too. In front of the man from Somerset; a Sicilian called Gianfranco, who was holidaying in nearby Perthshire; a group of tennis mad former students who made a reunion out of the day trip; a family of five who had traveled from John O'Groats to share in the magic of the Dunblane Centre. And 150 more, locals and visitors crammed into the community hall, built as a symbol of enduring humanity, all cheering and hugging each other.

“This is such a lovely community, such a friendly place,” said Mrs Diggins, her face lit up by her huge smile. “I am so delighted, so pleased for them all.”

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Drive-by theatre and ferry tales on the road to Unst

Against the black of night and in a shower of sleet, a gang of young men is picked out in car headlights, tumbling around an old Volvo. To the left and right, ballroom dancers spin to a rhythm, completing a surreal scene.

This is Brae harbour on a remote Shetland coast, as far from theatreland as is possible. Yet here, buffeted by an Atlantic wind, Ignition is being staged, a fusion of dance, drama and driving, exploring “our bittersweet relationship with the automobile”.

This ambitious project is a far cry from the road safety show first suggested in memory of Stuart Henderson, a local boy who died in a car crash in 2007.  Developed at a cost of about £170,000 by Shetland Arts and the National Theatre of Scotland, Ignition has generated exhibitions and songs, staged parkour classes and mounted story-telling sessions on local buses. It has even created a piece of public art, a knitted car made in sessions of “makkin and yakkin” (knitting and talking) proof that Shetlanders know more than one way of spinning a yarn.

The piece de resistance is the finale, drive-by theatre performed in and around a community hall, and requiring the audience to take cars between venues and even light the stage.
At the centre of all this artistic activity is the character of the White Wife, a latter-day legend brought to life by Lowri Evans, the project’s hitchhiker-in-residence. Rarely out of her ghostly costume, over the last six months Ms Evans has hitched rides by car and ferry all over the archipelago recording the 157 stories behind the show. Last September, her first night on Shetland ended with a hen party on Unst, the most northerly populated island.

I’d got on a ferry, because the last drive had taken me to Yell,” said Ms Evans, 30, a performance artist from Manchester. “I saw Scooby Doo walk across the deck. There were hens and stags going between the islands. The young girls were dressed as old grannies and I just squeezed in on the back seat beside them.”

In Lerwick she met   Nepalese waiters from the Gurkha restaurant. “They’d ping-ponged around the world and ended  in Shetland,” she recalled. “I gave them tea, fancies and sandwiches from a camper van. I danced in the rain with the manager. It was a really nice exchange.” 

Ms Evans even helped recruit the Ignition cast. Just before Christmas, in character as the White Wife, she encountered Barry and Wendy Broadbent on the No 9 bus from Walls to Lerwick. Now, clad in white, husband and wife are each spending ten nights acting out their own strange hitch-hikers’ tales, as they sit beside audience members during Ignition’s peripatetic performance. “Barry will kill me if get my lines wrong,” said Mrs Broadbent. “We must have rehearsed 600 times.”

If the cast all live on the island, key figures in the creative team are outsiders, recruited by the National Theatre of Scotland. Wils Wilson, Ignition’s director, is from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire; Rob Evans, is its Glasgow-based writer. Hugh Nankivell teased out the soundtrack from local song-writing sessions. Mr Nankivell’s home is Torquay, roughly 700 miles away.
Jacqui Clark, a Shetlander who has helped script the show, believes the outside help was essential.

There have been people brought in by NTS, but they haven’t inflicted their opinions on us,” said Ms Clark. “They have taken the time to listen to the folk who’ve engaged with us. As a local you can see the legacy, folk learning, picking up new skills. It’s important for a small community like this.”

Is the final production worth a round trip for a West End enthusiast? It is nothing if not striking and while some of the songs have the sound of the community workshop, the parkour is exciting; the car theatre is intense and unsettling.

Outside Brae Community Hall, Davy Cooper, one of the show’s story tellers, is delighted with the premiere. He reveals that the key to good drama is to base it on truth not fiction.

My uncle Charlie died in 1940, before I was born,” said Mr Cooper. “He was a whaler and had overwintered up north, when his ship couldn’t get back because of the wolf packs of U-boats. They finally sailed home in a convoy. But within a week he had died in a boating accident just 100 yards from the house. He was found standing up in the water, dead.

Now that would be difficult to make up.”

* Ignition, various venues, Shetland until 30 March.