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Ken Currie Can Still Shock

Words:

Edd Norval
April 16, 2018

It's never been in question whether Currie can shock, rather whether art still has the ability to. Controversy and shock-tactics are ten-a-penny now. Controversy has been a way to court attention and gain infamy since time immemorial. Ken Currie uses it as a way to draw our attention to our own actions though - he doesn't shock for the sake of it.

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Piss in a jar with a crucifix? Who's that going to shock nowadays? The internet and 24-hour news means that we can and do see shocking images so often that they no longer shock us. As a result, artists have often resorted to creating nightmarish worlds for their creations to reside - a world that seems to exist for the sole sake of shocking - a way to be heard in a world filled with daily horror. Ken Currie straddles both - his images have enough of reality to scare us, they are after all reflections of our lives. But there's also enough of unreality in there to stop us in our tracks.


He doesn't use these moments of surrealism to divert our attention though. Instead they serve as a way of making us question ourselves. Why doesn't a mans legs being replaced by tentacles appear horrific? That's because the surrounding image looks at the brutal whaling industry, the real eye-catcher. It's so brutal that the tentacles-for-legs doesn't matter. His painting, The Flensers, examines working-class life and tradition - what people will do and how far they will go to make their way through the world. Sometimes the real shock comes from ourselves, what we are capable of - not from other people.


His artwork has a powerful draw - it's a dark place, immersive and violent. He wants us to look and then look again. He doesn't want us to ever look away, that's why there's so much to see. Their scale is such that it invites the audience to spend time taking in everything that is on show, all of the horrors and subtle menace that tells many smaller stories and one large one.

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Currie's art takes a shot at contemporary life by portraying one of the most absurd and barbarous conditions of existence - war. He doesn't portray war itself, but the effects of it. In his paintings The Lime Bucket and Whitened Hands he zooms in on hands soaked in lime, a substance used for tasks as mundane as cleaning and as horrific as burning and corroding away organic matter - it's popular for people looking to dispose of others.


The pictures show a ghostly contrast - the hands set against a dark backdrop glow with an evil intent. Currie digs deeper into the aftermath of war with War Paint, a series of morbid portraits of the inevitable victims. Their faces are warped by the effects - saved only by the efforts of surgeons. Currie drew inspiration from the medical draughts of Henry Tonks, a late 19th century surgeon that documented his facial reconstruction work. This medical theme permeates his work and perhaps comes to a poignant climax with Rictus, both the name of his recent solo show and the eponymous 2015 painting.


It depicts another person destroyed by war, although this one is different - he multiplies the impact. The painting shows the face of a Hiroshima bomb survivor gazing hauntingly at the audience, partly obscured by the back of a military general. We cannot see his face, so we are left with a limitless checklist of emotions that he could be experiencing. For all we know though , maybe he only stopped to look at it to show face. Such is the cold-blooded passivity required for such a role. Certainly what we know is what can hurt us.

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If the faces in these paintings had bodies, they'd feature in his 2016 painting Krankenhaus. Wars are known for bringing about advances in technology - in times of dire straits, humans have a primal proclivity to develop things that can help. It's like we maintain balance by placing order onto the chaos that we have created. The painting depicts a medical theatre where patients are up to all manner of things. It's like one of those sideshows that your cart passes in a haunted house ride at the fairground - only here your cart doesn't keep moving. You could just walk away, but you you wont.


Every new look gives us a new insight. A man is lying down with a hose in his mouth. His stomach isn't being pumped though - the pipe leads right back around to his genitals. At house left stands a man with a prostethic arm carving into some raw meat. Taking centre stage is a mini-orchestra featuring two patients led by a medic. It's a cacophony of death, both as it happens and as it is about to.


The painting has the same composition of classics - the lighting and crispness of image is akin to another era of art. The subject matter though seems fittingly contemporary. It's the reflection of post-traumatic stress disorder that plagues men and woman all over the world after fighting in wars that even soldiers don't fully understand. The patients are powerless to the actions of the doctors - likewise, we are similarly powerless to the actions of corporations, governments and other controlling forces.

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It's hard to not notice the similarities to Francis Bacon. The paintings are as aesthetically visceral as they are psychological studies of the subjects. While Bacon used his art to dive into his own psyche and fetishes, Currie's work seems to have a moral core that radiates beyond the initial shock-factor of his work.


His pained depictions of the horrors of war are genuinely shocking, not least because it shows man-made results of anger, greed and hubris. While in the news and on paper the effects of war seem merely numerical - statistics that we can barely even imagine, each one of Currie's pictures are portraits of intense and intimate human suffering. You don't just imagine their physical pain, but the psychological fallout that comes with it. Everything they've lost isn't presented in the painting - how could it be?


It's striking that what stands out is just as much what he hasn't painted as what he has. It's the invisible carnage that has been strewn through the victims soul, the irreparable damage that spreads like a cancer into all parts of the life they once knew. It would be great to see these paintings as a way of elevating the underrepresented voices of soldiers - but it's not that. They're hands reaching up from Hell trying to pull us down. If we look at them and aren't provoked to react - we are in many ways complicit. Even though they may look sick, they aren't. Currie is trying to tell us that it is us, society, that is.

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