Flowers Gallery, New York | March 6 – April 26, 2014
Scottish artist Ken Currie emerged in the 1980s as one of four figurative painters dubbed the “New Glasgow Boys,” alongside Steven Campbell, Peter Howson, and Adrian Wiszniewski. He became known for his harrowing scenes of that city’s industrial street life, as well as images of bodily degradation which conveyed his concerns over political and civil deprivation. In this exhibition Currie presents 13 oil paintings that place his unsettling expressions of corporeal decay against the futility of status-seeking and narcissistic social ambition. Drawing on the courtly settings of Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya, with a lean toward the darkness of Goya’s later output, the most startling works are portraits of individuals who, while often traditionally dressed and posed, putrefy before the viewer. As these ghastly characters melt toward death others lie in funeral repose, having already crossed over. It is difficult to look at these lurid images, but harder to look away.
“Transfigurations 1” (2013) is among the largest of Currie’s bloodier works. The scale, coupled with its central position upon entering the gallery, makes for a gruesome first impression. A man in a neat shirt and tie gazes steadily out at the viewer, the skin flayed off his face to reveal the glistening crimson gore beneath. Currie has painted the background dark and gloomy, focusing all the picture’s light on the subject, an approach Currie employs often in this exhibition. The juxtaposition between the sitter’s calm demeanor and his bodily demise is hideously alluring. Portraits are intended to preserve and aggrandize and this one fulfills that role, except it is the human’s destruction that is preserved, not his living perpetuity.
“Transfigurations 1,” along with three smaller portraits in the same vein—including the wickedly titled “General Franco as a Gigot of Lamb” (2012) recall the work of Francis Bacon, a steadfast influence on Currie. Bacon’s “Figure with Meat” (1954), which was based on Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, also depicts a disintegrating individual. There is a certain trajectory that begins with Velázquez’s opulent preservation of the papacy’s glory, passes through Bacon’s violent expression of corruption and decay, and culminates in Currie’s cadaverous figures, where the question of exaltation is turned towards deteriorating muscle fibers and tissue, exposing our inevitable physical dissolution that no constructed likeness can prevent.
Elsewhere, three large paintings show attempts at ceremonial and bodily preservation after death. In “Effigy” (2013), a pope, swathed in elaborate costume of silk, fur, and ruby slippers, lies prostrate on luxurious red pillows, his serene face somewhere between flesh and mask. This sumptuous portrait hints that the office of the Holy See could be viewed as an embodiment of power, extravagance, and self-ennoblement, utilized here to highlight our delusive pursuits of cultural prestige and even immortality. This vicar of Christ is conserved for posterity, but only as the richly decorated husk of a perishable man.
“Plaster the Death” and “Study (Plaster Setting)” (both 2012), depict naked male bodies—perhaps the same Pope—laid out on a table, wearing a death mask. “Plaster the Death” includes a mourning woman standing at the man’s slippered feet and a pair of ghostly hands or gloves resting on a pot below his head. The scene is reflected in a large mirror that is part of the expensive yet austere environment. In “Study (Plaster Setting)” the room is blackened, showing only the body, the drapes of the table, and wax dripping from the head into a bucket. Again, a mysterious hand hovers in the dark nearby. In these two works the light is ghoulish, the flesh grey, and the newly formed masks seem only to reflect the hopelessness of trying to retain the essence of life when it has gone.
Back in the land of the living, an optically complex painting, “The Viewing” (2013) makes for an incisive critique on contemporary displays of pretension and mass visibility. Dressed for a formal gathering, foreground figures with their backs to us look at a painting in which further individuals stare directly out at us, seemingly more conscious of those who would observe them than those who make up their company. The figures’ outfits may be dated, but the work’s sentiment is oddly familiar. Today, jockeying for attention online is a ubiquitous part of how we define ourselves. And it is a constant effort due to the speed at which a photograph slips down the newsfeed. Perhaps the desire to show an audience that we exist, that we matter, is an unrelenting aspect of being human? Even the background characters in the painting within this painting seem to strain for their share of attention. But what is everyone looking at? Many are facing the viewer, but if the title of the work is read as a reference to a funeral wake, then they may be gazing upon the deceased. The viewer of “The Viewing” then stands in for the deceased. It is a painting that brings together many threads of the exhibition, brilliantly blurring the line between the observer and the observed.