Ken Currie is renowned for his disturbing pictures of human figures around which violence of a sort looms. He first came to prominence as one of the New Glasgow Boys of the 1980s and is well known for his public murals commissioned for the People’s Palace in Glasgow as well as his Three Oncologists artwork in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery collection.
In his new exhibition, Red Ground, at Flowers Gallery, his rich oil paintings are not for the squeamish. Literally full of blood and guts, they offer a meditation on violence in its many forms. The picture you see above is based upon the guga hunters of Ness in the north of Scotland, who, since ancient times, have practised a ritual of each year harvesting young gannets (guga) from a rock called Sula Sgeir. I’ve interviewed Ken Currie about his new show but first, in this audio clip, he explains more about the guga hunters and why the picture is called Bird People (after JM).
Ken, in Bird Men (after JM) you have imported elements into this painting from your other work, for example the man with the disfigured face.
I think what I’ve got to do with this painting is to create a starting point for people to understand where it’s coming from. It’s not necessarily a painting about the guga hunters. It’s about slightly deeper things. It’s about living life on the edge, the horror of violence, survival and the cycle of birth and death. If you look at the two flanking panels, there are two female figures there with an egg in a nest by one in the corner and in the other corner is a bird that has expired. The bowl is like a bath you would bathe a child in and the other is like a winding sheet, a shroud. So you have birth and death and between them that these people have got to survive. So it’s really about the extremities that people have to put up with and survive. And there are lots of ambiguities in it. There’s lots of blood, they’re covered in bird shit and you don’t know if these people are sinister like a gang of murderers or something or is it something these people have to do to make a living.
Violence is a recurring theme in your work. What appeals to you about depicting it?
One of the roles of artists over the centuries is to create beauty. Truth, goodness and beauty is what the artist is meant to do. We live in a cruel, horrible world so we must create sublime images which take us away from that. I come from an opposite position. I think we need to confront the violence inherent in us. We can’t pretend we are these higher civilised creatures surrounded by these beautiful objects even though that’s what we’ve been doing for millennia. Because violence is at the heart of that. Every beautiful vase that you see violence is behind it somewhere. It’s been plundered, it’s been made by a slave. Violence is an inescapable part of the human condition.
Is there something about Glasgow in the era in which you grew up that has influenced this view?
Violence was something that was commonplace in my life growing up. I lived in the outskirts of Glasgow but I lived with violence every day. It was something I had to come to terms with. Violence towards animals, violence towards other people, violence for no reason at all, it was always there. It’s part of the working class experience. Men had to be men. You didn’t sit around discussing Nietzsche, you weren’t going to win intellectual arguments so people used to fight. So violence for me is not an alien thing. I’ve experienced violence and I have to put my hand up and say that I’ve meted it out as well as part of my growing up. You had to have that physical edge to get through life in those days but things are much more civilised now. I went to art school and decided to get it out of my system I would paint about it and I still am. Also, art history is full of violence. I’m massively influenced by the painters of the past. My work is in a state of permanent homage to the masters like Bosch, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya. You have to talk about Goya when you talk about these paintings. He’s a massive influence on me. He was no stranger to the depiction of violence. He wanted to show a picture of who we truly were, the good and the bad. So it’s not something I want to shirk away from. Also, looking at violent imagery makes you think about things in a deeper way. Why did this artist paint this, why did the artist confront these things? Hopefully, out of this thought process, people will come to their own conclusions about what we are. Have we really got rid of these primitive urges? I don’t think we have.
Your triptych, Down in the Woods, with with all this beating and self-flagellation going on, is there a religious overtone here?
The flagellants have got these pointed hats on and there’s a candle there as well, the kind you might see in a church. But the two figures that are engaging in this self-flagellation look more like military figures. They’ve got striped trousers and boots on. Why are they engaged in this process of hurting themselves? Are they doing it because they’ve done something bad and feel the need to be punished? Are they doing it because they like doing it? Lots of questions are being asked on this panel. l
And does the stag beetle represent violence itself?
The stag beetle represents the terrors that come from within. Stag beetles aren’t that size obviously and I find insects quite scary. They’re so tiny but they’re quite robotic, they’ve got no cute faces. They’re killing machines a lot of the time. So I’ve always had a fear of giant insects particularly.
Is the man with the club trying to stem his inner terror?
It’s a rolled up newspaper. It’s like this chap has got his flask and his cup of coffee and camping chair and he’s gone for a little walk in the forest in this tranquil setting when something inexplicable has come out of nowhere and this guy has no chance. There’s no way he’s going to survive this, not with a newspaper. He’s making a futile attempt to deal with this horror that’s coming out of nowhere. I think it’s to do with fate. There are things that happen to us which we have no control over.
I think the panel on the right is more to do with what you might call organised violence, state violence. This figure here with the waders on is like he’s clubbing a seal. There’s almost a sense in which the figures he’s about to club is almost accepting what’s going to happen, like a sacrificial violence. He’s got a laurel leaf thing around his head like he’s been selected to be martyred or sacrificed. But the whole thing has got a theatrical feeling to it. This isn’t taking place in a real forest. It’s an imagined, theatrical event that’s happening.
Basking Shark is another gory picture. Is this another ritual reference?
Again, this relates to the idea of animals being used or exploited in some way. I’m not an animal rights person at all. i’m not trying to make a point about the poor animals but I am making a point about how humans seem to have an endless capacity for violence towards themselves and towards the world around them. This is about the harvesting of basking sharks which took place not far from where the Bird People painting is set just after the war. People would torpedo these massive sharks, slaughter them and use them for their oil. The oil was used mostly for machine parts, it wasn’t even eaten.
The bird in Black Backed Gull has a certain ghostly look to it.
I actually came across a gull that had been strung up that way. It was hanging behind a whole row of crows that had been killed by the gamekeeper. I was really struck by the image because it was beautiful actually, the way its wings were in a cruciform shape. I did an etching based on that and decided to develop it in this larger painting. It’s more the composition that intrigued me rather than dealing with any great theme or anything. I just like this idea of this huge bird just hanging in space as it were.
The background looks spacey with what look like stars.
They could be stars but in fact they’re actually mayflies, a hatch of tiny flies flying about all over.
Are you generally a pessimistic person about the human condition?
Pessimistic, misanthropic, all of those things. It’s a good, default position to cope with the world today (laughs). The painting about the basking shark, for example, if you look behind the loop you see this dark shape in the water which might look like a shark but in actual fact represents a trident submarine which patrols these same waters. I’ve seen them many times. So there’s a kind of violence that these guys are engaging in which is to slaughter these beautiful basking sharks but there’s another kind of violence, the violence of war between nations. I live 45 minutes away from the base. It’s beside a major population centre and every Glaswegian will tell you it’s something on their mind. That’s mass destruction and that’s never going to go away. Life may be improving on a day-to-day basis but we still have the capacity to wipe ourselves out with a flick of a switch.
Red Ground is showing at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP until 27 April.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Flowers Gallery London and New York.