This interview mark the first of a series of articles from prominent Scottish artist, Peter Thomson, who, we are delighted to announce, will now be curating our ‘Into Art‘ focus. And what a start! Peter caught up with world famous artist, Ken Currie to chat about his art, his fascinations and how he views the current trends in art. Ken has an exhibition opening in the Flowers Gallery on Thursday 18 March in Hong Kong (link below).
Peter: In the early part of your career you were noted for painting images dealing with issues of class struggle and identity. Do you feel that these sentiments are still present in your work, maybe less obvious? Or do you feel that as a subject there was only so much you could say about these matters in painting? Did you feel, do you feel, painting, as a medium has limitations addressing these subjects, as opposed to, say literature, music or filmmaking?
Ken: I think it creeps in now and again. Certainly political anxieties about what’s going on in the world filter through. As for class struggle and class identity, I would say it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind. I mean I know very clearly where I come from, the environment that formed me as a child and teenager and that this is rooted in my sense of identity but I think now in terms of the work it only ever emerges vestigially. I think I’ve probably said all I have to say overtly in those issues. I do think great subtlety is required in dealing with those subjects in a visual form like painting, something that was conspicuously absent from that early work. Its unapologetic directness seemed to annoy just about everyone, especially, ironically, the Left. I remember one critic at the time describing my work as “insufferable”. I think, as you say, other mediums are much better – music, literature, but especially film and photography. I’m thinking of Ken Loach’s films and the photography of someone like Chris Killip. What painting could be as powerful as those?
You have an impressive collection of Art Books (monographs), and you’ve quoted Goya as an influence, what other painters from history, and currently, or any other genre, influences your thinking?
I have a huge, probably exhausting, list of influences that go across painting, cinema, photography, design, literature, poetry, music and all sorts of strange and disparate things – I can barely keep on top of it sometimes. It can be overwhelming. And I tend to be quite voracious in seeking out new stimuli which explains all the monographs you’ve seen. I have 10 books on Francis Bacon, 6 on Max Beckmann, 6 on Philip Guston, 4 on Goya, 4 on Velazquez, 2 on Paula Rego – and so it goes on. I am constantly seeking new painters that I don’t know about and if I don’t find any I just buy more books on the artists I do know. Sometimes I feel I may have looked at everything worth looking at. But then there’s the contemporary painters . I see these mostly online but sometimes in the flesh. There are some really excellent painters out there right now – some real big guns. Painters like Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Neo Rauch, Michael Borremans, Peter Doig, Paula Rego, Eric Fischl, Alex Katz to name but a tiny handful. The field is rich in talent right now and a lot of exciting work is going on.
As a former student at GSA Mackintosh Building, where the studios were specifically designed for painters, what’s your thinking regarding the old-style painting studio arrangements? There was a loose association with old atelier practice. Did you find shared painting spaces, helpful, encouraging, or inhibiting? And touching on that, do you have any thoughts or concerns about current trends in Art Schools to disassociate with specialty in discipline, especially craft & skill? There is undoubtedly now almost a suspicion regarding crafted Art as archaic & irrelevant. Would you regard this as a market driven trend, or a sincere development? Would you acknowledge or dispute the notion of Conceptual Orthodoxy, in both FE Art Education & state funded Galleries?
At the time, in the late 70s, early 80s, those studio arrangements were just the norm but I always felt a bit exposed. There was a very competitive atmosphere at that time. I always felt I was looking over my shoulder. Everything you worked on was exposed to casual scrutiny. Some fellow students were supportive and others were dismissive. I could be either supportive and dismissive myself on many occasions. I actually preferred working in my student flat, at night, on my own, away from the communal environment. I felt quite emboldened in this set up working on ideas, drawings, sometimes little films and even some writing. There was less pressure from both fellow students and tutors.
All this was a long time ago and the general set up at GSA has changed dramatically. In any given year in the Painting School there was maybe 30 students. Now it’s around 75 with no corresponding increase in staff, resources and working space. One tutor looked after 15 students. Now students are lucky to see their tutors at all in any given term. This has had a drastic impact on the transmission of basic skills and technical knowledge, which can only come from experience, practice and critical dialogue with a mentor, a situation, sadly, that will become much worse as a result of the current pandemic.
The specialist departments are now fluid and disparate. You have photography students making sculptures, painting students making videos, sculpture students doing things that barely appear to be within the realm of art. All this comes under the rubric of an amorphous Fine Art Practice. Any student in any department can do anything they want. That’s where we’re at now. So craft and skill suffer dreadfully in that kind of set up. In order to compensate for the lack of practical training many students invent agendas for themselves that aggressively reject the use of skill. It’s a way of coping with the intense peer pressure, which is always a feature in an art school environment. On my very occasional visits to art schools I’m often struck by the sheer conformity of the students – as you say, an orthodoxy – which I think comes out of a fear of failure, so it’s not something I would dispute. It’s tragic. I feel very sorry for them sometimes, I think it must be incredibly tough right now.
It’s impossible to discuss in any depth contemporary Art in the UK without referencing The Turner Prize. What are your thoughts? Does it contribute anything to maintaining vibrancy in UK culture? Or is it at best a marketing tool for the interests of London metro-central Art movers & shakers?
There’s the nomination criteria ‘prioritized’ for the Prize of “innovation” & “cutting edge” are these really valid or substantial criteria, or a gratuitous nod to modernity? In an age when all barriers to art practice have effectively been removed, can there really be a genuine Avant Garde?
I agree. Every artist in Britain works under the shadow of the Turner Prize whether they like it or not. Virtually all public discourse on contemporary art is filtered through its lens. In Scotland it’s a big thing as so many artists here have been shortlisted for or won it and this is seen as somehow proof of the vibrancy of Scottish art. I’m in no way trying to diminish this success story but there are problematic aspects. Here we have an example of art made at the periphery being validated from the metropolitan centre. As Robert Hughes said in his great essay ‘The Decline of the City of Mahagonny’:
“ The Cultural Cringe is the assumption that whatever you do in the field of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, dance or theatre is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside your own society…..The essence of cultural colonialism is that you demand of yourself that your work measure up to standards that cannot be shaped or debated where you live. By the manipulation of such standards almost anything can be seen to fail, no matter what sense of finesse, awareness and delight it may produce in its actual setting.”
The focus here in Scotland on the imprimatur of the Turner Prize is as an arbiter of quality and this is what has fuelled the demand for places at GSA. The qualifications are seen as a springboard to success. And the GSA management can’t resist packing the paying students in. Ironically, GSA has among the lowest satisfaction rating of any higher education institution in the UK. Something’s amiss!
But, thinking about the Turner Prize I am often reminded of a similar prize from a bygone age. The Prix de Rome was the premiere art prize in France from the 17th century up until the outbreak of World War 2. In the 19th century it was not only the pre-eminent art prize in France but in the world. Winners were guaranteed celebrity status, were able to command huge prices for their work, were able to live in enormous houses with purpose built studios, were invited to all the great social gatherings of their day and written about extensively in newspapers. It was the passport to fame, wealth and honour. A bit like the Turner Prize today.
We could list a few of the winners of the Prix de Rome between, say, 1881 to 1913: Laurent, Dechenaud, Gibert, Krehbiel, Lefevre, Davaux… In contrast we could list some of the French artists who not only did not win the Prix de Rome between 1881 and 1913 but were never awarded any art prize at any time in their careers: Gauguin, Braque, Degas, Monet, Seurat, Bonnard…to name but a few.
As JD Fergusson asked in his book “Modern Scottish Painting” in 1939 – “How many great artists have been Prix de Rome winners?” We might then legitimately ask today – how many great artists have been Turner Prize winners? How will we ever know?
As for the ‘avant-garde’, I’ve always liked the New York painter Alex Katz’s definition – “… something that happened in France a long, long time ago.”
Touching again on painting in the contemporary Art environment, every now & again there’s a dramatic claim that ‘Painting is Dead‘. How would you defend craft, or skill orientated Art in the current mood? Is there a need to defend painting?
We have been told repeatedly in the entire post-war era that portrait painting, figurative painting, representational painting is, as Chuck Close said in 1968, the “dumbest, most moribund, out-of-date, and shopworn of possible things you could do.”
That was 52 years ago. I think on the contrary, right now, painting is in another period of ascendancy in spite of the prejudices and narrow terms of mainstream international curators, who have not looked at painting in 30 years.
In the 80s painting surged. A lot of it was bad and there was a big backlash. There wasn’t a week went by when some commentator was declaring painting dead. They’ve been banging on about this since the invention of photography. And painting, like Banquo’s ghost, always seems to re-appear to haunt us and to accuse. Now every other week you read articles about contemporary painters breaking records at auction. As an art form it’s in rude health.
I increasingly see painting as a discreet art form. I mentioned Alex Katz earlier. He’s been at the painting game a long time and said in an interview that painting shouldn’t be mixed with other contemporary forms. He said: “…painting ought to be shown separately from photography and video, in a contemplative space.” I would go further – I don’t think painting has anything to do with what we call “contemporary art”. I think it’s an entirely separate art form now, with its own history, traditions and future. That’s just my opinion. As I said, I think over the last 30 odd years international curators of public galleries and museums have shown scant interest. For them it’s an art form with a past but no future. Fortunately most painters couldn’t care less what they think and just keep going.
The past 8 years has seen Scotland convulsed by three massive events, The Independence Referendum, Brexit, & the Global Viral Pandemic. Is there any focus in your current work on these events, consciously addressed, or subtly referenced? Is it possible to address these issues adequately within painting?
Well, it’s like I said earlier – I’m as aware as anyone else about what is going on in the world and some of it is bound to filter through in some way, sometimes overtly, I can’t help it. Commenting on our current predicament is part of what I want to say sometimes and I do think that painting can address these issues if it’s done subtly and allusively. I have to say I’m not that impressed by, say, abstract painters that continue to turn out the same paintings in spite of the horrors that surround them. At the same time artists that make work that is immediately responsive often look opportunistic and the work dates quite quickly. There’s a balance to be found somehow between these two extremes – to make work that will last beyond its time whilst not ignoring its time. This is very difficult, but I would give one example – Picasso’s Guernica – a painting made in response to a specific historical event which now stands as a timeless condemnation of war.
A while ago you engaged in a fascinating dialogue with Professor Sue Black, a pathologist in “The Anatomy Lesson” Broadcast on Radio Scotland. Listen here: Enlightenment After Dark
In the exchange you uncovered common ground with the pathologist, an interest in the processes of human decay and deterioration. Not in a morbid indulgence, but both seeing it as a necessary and inevitable area of human interest and, to an extent, regarding it as beautiful. These interests strike me as being central in your recent and current paintings and, you have an unconventional, perhaps controversial notion of what beauty is. You didn’t want to gain affirmation from the world by painting kittens & sunsets; in fact you flirted with rejection and being regarded as weird by addressing unconventional beauty. Was this ever an issue of concern for you, were you ever conscious of how people might react to your view of the world?
Well, my experiences with Sue Black were intense. I felt as though I had been allowed into a very grown up world that unflinchingly grasped the reality of the human body and our mortality. I had a similar experience nearly 20 years earlier when I painted three Dundee oncologists and was allowed on several occasions to observe them at work in the operating theatre. That was for me, with hindsight, a possibly transformative experience, something I’ll never forget.
Sometimes I do worry about my unhealthy concerns, my attraction to the morbid and the hideous, things that most sensible people – and sensible artists – stay well clear of. I have no explanation for this. I just have a kind of natural curiosity for such things, after all, in nature life and death, horror and beauty are separated by the thinnest of veils.
I think as artists our job is to look and to look at everything. It’s worth remembering that in a different era student painters were expected to take anatomy lessons and draw from cadavers in the tradition of Leonardo. Indeed when I studied at GSA there was still a protocol in place that allowed art students to attend student dissections at Glasgow University and I recall visiting the anatomy museum there.
Many of my paintings have attempted to hover in that difficult area of horror and beauty, and it’s an area that fascinates me, the possibility that a subject can be both horrific and beautiful simultaneously. The tension between the desire to look away but to want to hungrily take it all in. Francis Bacon’s remark about his possession of a book of coloured illustrations of diseases of the mouth that were as beautiful as a Monet sunset has always intrigued me.
If my unhealthy concerns might be weird as you put it then I can only point to the history of painting – to Goya, Bruegel, Bosch, to Rembrandt, Soutine, Caravaggio, Francis Bacon as above and Ribera to name but a few. Ribera painted the torture and mutilation of the Saints, specialising in flaying scenes. His sumptuous paintings are exemplary in being both horrific and beautiful simultaneously.
People crave and demand beauty in art as some kind of solace but are happy to watch people getting their heads blown off on TV. Perhaps they’re the weird ones. The lust for the spectacle of violence is deep and has immemorial roots in the human species.
Just to conclude. Returning to the Glasgow School of Art and The Mackintosh, now an elephant, boarded up in Glasgow’s back room. What effect did the two fires have on you as a former student and lifelong resident of the city? Do you feel the issue has been addressed with the seriousness it deserves, or is it simply “one of those things” & there’s other stuff to worry about?
Well the first fire was a shock for us all. We all remember what we were doing when we heard. In my case I was walking out of the Cardiology department of the Royal Infirmary after handing back a heart monitor I had on for about 7 days. I wanted to go back in and hook it up again so they could record the palpitations. Watching the Mackintosh Building, the Mack, burning on live TV was horrible. I have two friends that teach at the art school, one was involved in the evacuation, the other at the seat of the fire, so I got all the details. I was infuriated when I heard how the fire started – the canisters of inflammable foam and the projector. How people missed the dangers is staggering. What colossal negligence. A revealing testament to the carelessness, complacency and complete lack of reverence that permeates certain sections of the management of the institution with regard to this, now former, iconic international masterpiece.
If the first fire was a wound that could be healed and repaired, the second was biblical in its devastation. The Mack has gone. I’ve stood on the site and through the barrage of scaffolding there is this sad ruin. I notice how little the Mack is mentioned now in this time of Covid. People are putting it behind them and resignedly moving on. They can rebuild a replica, for sure, and it will probably look great, but it will never, ever be the Mack. Glasgow has been hugely diminished by its loss.
Interview by Peter Thomson
Ken Currie Interregnum will be on view at Flowers Gallery, Tung Street, Hong Kong from 18th March – 29th May, 2021. www.flowersgallery.com