Ken Currie is renowned for his unsettling portrayal of the human figure. Depicting the damage inflicted by war and conflict, illness and decay, Currie provides a response to brutality and suffering in contemporary society. Rising to attention within a generation of painters known as the New Glasgow Boys in the 1980s, Currie is well known for his public murals commissioned for the People’s Palace in Glasgow, as well as his enduringly popular artwork from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Collection Three Oncologists, representing a life-long study of the fragility of the human condition.
The monumental triptych Down in the Woods featured in Red Ground portrays a Kafkaesque world, incorporating the horrifying vision of a monstrous stag beetle amid scenes of beating and self-flagellation. Theatrical painted backdrops provide shallow spaces for the action to unfold, merging from one to another in the manner of a cinematic dissolve. Stage-like backdrops also lend ambiguous, dreamlike qualities to images of shrouded figures in paintings such as Red Ground, and the portrait of a nurse wearing sinister-looking red gloves in Gown
Further paintings show imaginative depictions of hunted marine life. The ghostly carcasses in Black Backed Gull, and Basking Shark are permeated by a sense of underlying threat. While the gull’s splayed body recalls the archetypal image of the crucifixion, the coiling entrails of the shark relate to the tortuous ancient tradition of disembowelment, recorded for example in accounts of the martyrdom of Saint Elmo c. 303 AD.
Amongst the subjects in the exhibition are traditions that have survived for generations in remote areas of Scotland. Bird People (After JM) portrays the controversial customary harvesting of gannet chicks by the Guga Hunters on the Hebridean island of Sula Sgeir. In this brutal image, several of the hunters appear to wear surgical facial masks (a reminder of Currie’s earlier works incorporating references to Henry Tonks’ images of wounded World War I soldiers). In the side panels of this triptych, female figures extend a pristine white bowl and shroud-like white linen, offering a disquieting acceptance of the cycle of life and death.