Ken Currie: Life most unsettling
Posted: 01 Jul 2012 | By: Joseph Brennan
Art critic Maggie Nelson, in her 2011 book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, wrote that figurative painter Francis Bacon often referred to the distortions played out on the subjects of his works as “injuries”. These injuries were performed with reference to photographs — often of friends. “If they were not my friends,” Bacon said, “I could not do such violence to them.” The violence ranged from lacerations on the body to the subtraction of the face from the head so that, in the words of Nelson, “the head could be made meat”.
It was this process that prompted French philosopher Gilles Deleuze to remark, “Pity the meat!”, after seeing a Bacon painting. Of interest here is what motivated Bacon to mutilate the body, which was a belief that violent art would “return us to life”. The sickly figures of Scottish artist Ken Currie service a similar aim.
“I absolutely want to force a visual engagement with the viewer,” Currie told curator Bill Hare in 2001. “I want the viewer to be simultaneously attracted and repulsed by my work in the same glance. My aim is to provoke anxiety and discomfort in the act of looking … to hold their gaze then mercilessly terrorise their compliancy and unsettle them.”
Concerning what ‘life’ such violence returns us to, curator Renée Porter — in the exhibition catalogue for the December 2011 Campbelltown Arts Centre’s Currie collection show — wrote, “Currie confronts us in a way that makes each of us look and consider issues we would not usually contemplate. In turn, we too question our own individual experience and existence.” According to Porter, in the eighties these issues concerned “the violent and destructive potential of mankind as a whole”. In particular, according to Dr Stephen Baycroft, these early works represented “the social and cultural consequences of life in Thatcherite Britain at the time”.
Porter explains that Currie’s attention shifted in the nineties from “mass crowds in revolutionary motion” to “the haunting stillness of isolated individuals”, both in life and after death. It is through the inflictions of these removed and decaying creatures that Currie’s practice most closely resembles Bacon’s painterly violence — which saw Currie, in the later part of the nineties, hone in on mutilated and traumatised limbs as referents for human suffering.
Baycroft and his late partner Dr Donald Holt donated their Currie collection to Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2001, which now holds the single largest collection of works by Currie in the world. French philosopher Georges Bataille, in his book Death and Sensuality, argues that “man goes constantly in fear of himself”, seeking above all else to separate the worlds of reason from the taboos of violence and death. By forcing us to look deep into the bleak eyes of the dead and dying, Currie returns us to life, reminding us all of the fragility of existence and our inevitable fade into oblivion. Currie works from the Baycroft–Holt Collection will be next on show at Campbelltown Arts Centre, 7 December 2012–27 January 2013.
Images from top:
Ken Currie, Friend and enemy, 1995–1996, oil on canvas, 124 x 103cm. Campbelltown Arts Centre. Gift of Dr Stephen Baycroft and Dr Don Holt, 2001.
Ken Currie, Self portrait with skeleton arm, 1995, oil on canvas, 101 x 90.6cm. Campbelltown Arts Centre. Gift of Dr Stephen Baycroft and Dr Don Holt, 2001.