Ken (‘urrie walks from Glasgow‘s city centre to his studio in the Gallowgate every day. One morning. a man staggers ottt with his head split open. Round the corner. the police stop and pile him into a car. Another man. another day. has a tattoo of()range King Billy needled into his arm. The portrait is festering. green with pus. ‘King Billy was cracking tip on his arm.‘ The kaleidoscope ofevents sickens further as another day unfolds. A group of men applaud an obese old prostitute and client as they complete their business in a yard. (‘urrie does not condescend with pity. His description is a visual one. filled with a guarded fascination. "l‘here are lots of prostitutes. Teal waifs. like 18th-century peasants. They‘re not from (ilasgow. They have lrish gypsy faces and come from a dynasty ofpoverty. of trying to make ends meet for generations.‘
'l'here‘s nothing romantic about the walk into work Ken (‘urrie takes every morning. Sure the Barras are across the way and every weekend interloping yuppies can legitimately dip into street culture to pick tip a bargain or spectate a little artful dodging. But without the crowds and the market. the area of the (iallowgate is a shanty town ofoddly assorted shops. of cafes smells away from any continental pretentions. of people with hard-set faces. a place where souls are traded for drink and sex and fights. where a Porsche with personalised number plates and shades sits outside the worst bar in a row of at least twenty. all camouflaged and unwelcome. ‘just little holes in walls.’ The naive suggestion as to whether (‘urrie ever samples these watering holes was met with laughter. Quite apart from dodging personal danger. he says. ‘I want to produce paintings that are near to the bone. but I‘m not into voyeurism.’ His material is gathered by observation on the street. piece by piece. building up a picture of characters and events like a (‘handler novel or a Bruegel painting.
'l'his hidden precinct does begin to sound like the set from a detective story or a medieval village. with all their attendant cliches. But while increasing numbers in this country become softened and influenced by trendier-than-thou shops and the pursuit of individualism. the basic common denominators around which these people base their lives never alter. The reality is that they exist. ‘l'm naturally a pessimist in the times we live in. You can talk about the city being great again. but you are still going to have isolation. alienation and the brutal spectacle of the ()range Parade. I attempted an optimistic. socialist iconography in the past. but I don’t know if that's the kind ofoptimism I want to peddle now.
That optimism was evident in his paintings for the mural commissioned by the People‘s Palace on (ilasgow (ireen last year. Though for practical reasons painted on canvas. the ‘mural' is a permanent feature. the first such project to be commissioned by the city for over
THIST LE IN
Pcssimism from the people‘s painter. Ken Currie tells Alice Bain why his latest paintings are full of brutal and hopeless images of Glasgow.
100 years. Made in eight sections. (‘urrie painted 2()() years of Labour History. 'l'here was glory in the struggle. a light shone in the darkness. (‘ommunity fought capitalism.
Ken (‘urrie's new paintings which will be exhibited in a one-man exhibition at 'I‘hird liye (‘entre this month. turn away from superficial dignities of the working-class spirit in an attempt to find inner strengths. Now. single figures stalk across his large painting. ‘All the old certainties are gone. 'l‘here‘s a sense of fracture. of being on your own.’ A woman in the street pushes a baby with the ugly face of an old man and wearing a baby bonnet cunt terrorist's hood. Perhaps its father is hanging out in the bar. Symbols play across the whole canvas. asking to be found — pub grub. masonic sign. thistle faded in the gutter. L'nion Jack from a balcony. orange light equals ()range house. Find one. and like those comic book games. the hunt for more is irresistable.
'l‘he motive for this visual hide and seek'.’ 'l‘o communicate. To make social statement. (‘urrie is well aware that it is not easy to get most people to stop and spend time to look and look again. His recipe for attracting attention is straight-forward. ‘()n one level it has to be well-painted. Right away that wins people over. People want to be bowled over by art. 'l'hey don‘t want cynicism. or intellectual games. They want to feel something.‘ I le is
equally aware that no concessions can be made. No nostalgia. no sentimentality. no romanticism. A postcard of a painting by Leger. the 20th century French artist who also sought a popular art without compromising formal standards or integrity. is pinned on his wall. (‘harcoal sketches for the large painting 'l'ree Of Liberty are tacked on the wall opposite. A cartoon of the complete composition is gridded tip and a ready reference at his side. ('urrie’s craft is as visible as his art. Talking of his craft. (‘urrie is ready with hot denial at being part of a Scottish regeneration of figurative art. ‘After the Vigorous lntagination my whole confidence in the idea of Scottish art collapsed.‘ While wholeheartedly accepting their success as individuals. (‘urrie finds the idea of Steven ('ampbell and Adrian Wis/niewski being leaders of a wave of Scottish artists offensive and he would like to debunk once and for all that the life class at Glasgow School of Art was the key to the whole movement. ‘lt's nonsense that we rejected minimalism and conceptualism and stuck to life drawing. We didn't reject conceptualism. We didn‘t know what it was' I lc chuckles to himself as he develops the theme. (‘urrie is well-endow ed with (ilaswegian wit. ‘lf we saw a minimalist painting hanging up we wouldn't know what it was. We stuck ‘ to life drawing because w e were taught in an insular. parochial.
provincial art school.’ After the ‘Vigorous lmagination‘ exhibition at last year‘s Edinburgh Festival emphasised and confirmed this popular belief. (‘urrie says he just wanted to ‘move with the speed of light'.
That speed led him to London. where he hung a painting in the show of British artists complementing the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera. In a portrait of(‘urrie by Sandy Moffat. one of the teachers at art school for whom he has the kind of admiration and respect which slips out in mutual enthusiasms. a book of Rivera’s work is on his right hand side. 'l‘here was the People’s Palace mural and now 'l‘hird liye Centre.
As we leaf through a heavy group of pastels. (‘urrie mentions that every painting. bar the Tree Of Liberty which was not quite finished the day I visited him. has already been sold. a fact which has a sweet and sour side. The sour side is that many have been bought privately and will not be seen by the public (‘urrie painted them for. We try and imagine the desperate woman in the Scottish trilogy in a yuppy dining room. ()n the sweet side. one going to Manchester Art (iallery has an ideal home. btit what about the one on its way to a (‘alifornian gallery —~ it will surely have a hard time in the sun.
('urrie shrugs. 'l'he dealings surrounding his paintings amuse him on one hand and depress him on the other. He sells out. but would often rather hang onto work to live and learn with it. His cynicism warns him to beware his own success.
We step away from contmerce back to (‘urrie's real interest. (ilasgow. Not the refurbished cultural centre but the (’lyde. the Red Road Flats and Blackhill ‘a horrible little heap ofspiky council houses like some sort of medieval weapon.‘ From his flat on the south side the whole vista is framed. ‘l’ve taken about 300“ photographs of the same view.’ A couple of years ago ('urrie jumped on his bike with his camera and clocked all the nooks and crannies in (ilasgow with the intention of rnakinga ‘big film'. llis store of knowledge about the city is as dense as it is detailed.
The material then is all there. but the painting is never easy. While the people in ('urrie's paintings struggle with their lives. (‘urrie himself struggles with his painting. ‘Iiverything is worked out in the drawing so that I can go at the painting lflfl per cent with all the feeling I've got. I never abandon a painting. Sometimes it‘s terrible. I can get terribly schoolboyish then - painting in every wee shoelace. But the painting is dead if you start fiddling with details. livery day you have to fight it.‘
(‘urrie's conflict is his fight to remain close to the community he represents while developing his reputation as an individual. It is that conflict which makes him an artist.
Ken (‘urric‘s work can be wen all/1c 'I‘lu'rt/ liyc ( t'ltlrt' from llijuly In .38 .-lugusl.
10'l‘he List 8— ll .luly 1988