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All is Vanity - Ken Currie at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery - The Open College of the Arts
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All is Vanity – Ken Currie at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery thumb

All is Vanity – Ken Currie at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
Conscious of the fact that my recent David Batchelor blog was about a show that had just closed, I would like to blog now about a show which has just opened! I went earlier this week to a talk about Ken Currie at the opening of his new show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
The talk was originally planned as an artist’s talk, but Currie was unable to attend due to serious family circumstances. Having begun attending artist’s talks regularly since relocating to Edinburgh, it was uncanny that it should be Ken Currie’s talk that was so affected as his entire oeuvre is an extended vanitas or danse macabre.
In fact, uncanny is an important word for Currie. Freud described it as the moment where the frightening meets the unfamiliar and this idea is a central theme in Currie’s paintings.
The speaker described Currie’s relationships with specific paintings by Goya and Velasquez evoking the way that for an artist ‘meeting’ a painting by a great master with whom you share concerns can trigger a lifelong relationship. Currie’s reaction to Goya’s painting of King Carlos (described at the time as making the King and Queen look like the baker and his wife after winning the lottery), to Velasquez’ painting of the infanta and to David’s death of Marat  have fed into his work in a way which is immediately apparent.
What was not raised at the talk was any interest Currie might have in graphic novels and comic books. Three of the paintings in the new body of work are reminiscent of the opening squares of a batman story. First an unfeasibly tall set of gates with a dreamlike pathway behind leading to imposing house with huge door, next a painting of same huge door, implying a move up the path, this time with the door ajar showing a desk and throne like chair in the far distance of a huge hallway. Finally an image of the empty desk and chair awaiting an evil villain or dictator. This storyboard transition implying movement and narrative seems at least to refer to graphic novels and comic books, which if true would be very interesting – encompassing a wider visual culture than the speaker allowed for.
Much of Currie’s work is about the bletted decay of middle age and the perils of delusory pretensions. This is a subject of interest to me personally. As a middle aged person studying my own subject at university amongst a much younger cohort, I clump along wearing the slingback of redemption on one foot and the Doc Martin of ignominy on the other. Abasement is a weekly occurrence. Currie is a vicious satirist and uses meldodrama and exaggeration but turns it back on his subjects as if it is their fault, through their self aggrandizement, that they have been so assaulted. It is as if a TV psychopath has got hold of Jane Austen’s Mr Elton and tortured him for days in an attic room.
When writing the drawing 2 course I threw in a trick question about the usefulness of reflecting not only on artists whose work looks and feels like your own, but also on those who share similar research interests or themes but whose output bears little resemblance to your own. Ken Currie is that for me. Currie paints exhaustively and faithfully whereas I paint when pushed into a corner by logic or when the mood takes me, as one possible activity alongside my reverse shoplifting and the holding of uncharitable tombolas. Our work looks very different and yet we ‘share’ Goya and Ken Currie’s interest in real and perceived failure and success, and in pettiness and nobility and their interaction is a scab I too pick at regularly.
Image: Ken Currie detail

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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One thought on “All is Vanity – Ken Currie at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

  • I find it interesting what you say about artists being interested in the same themes, but responding differently. I find this frequently in my own practice. Stylistic similarities are just that- style and little more. I find it is a trap that artists can get themselves into. Far better to be influenced or excited by another artist’s research and to own it and explore it for yourself.

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