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.