Ken Currie, Black Boat at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, East London (until 5th November 2022) – Taking photos (on a standard issue camera phone) in Flowers is almost infuriatingly impossible, the lighting in terms of viewing art, in terms of atmosphere, in terms of just standing there, is perfect, it doesn’t allow for decent photos and I’m reluctant to actually share these frankly piss-poor images with you but you see, I knew this Ken Currie show was going to be good, I was expecting something powerful but wow! I really wasn’t prepared for that sharp intake of air and that rather audible “Wow!” upon turning the corner into the main gallery area! This really is a wow and a whoosh, breath taking drama.
The East London branch of Flowers has been on exciting form in recent times, that Sean Scully curated group show, those big Kevin Sinnott paintings back in the Spring (this isn’t the first time we’ve said “wow” in Flowers), Nicola Hicks last year, Julie Cockburn. And yes, I know, look at the paintings don’t just take damn photos on your phone! Believe me, I was stood there lost in not quite delight, delight isn’t quite the word, in awe maybe? In shock and awe? In admiration, in search, scanning the narrative, the power of the paint, the people, the humanity, the drama, the inhumanity, the brutality, the sheer scale of it all, stood there for far longer than I should have been. I could have stood there for hours, there in the middle of the room spinning from one to another like some kind of idiot performance artist – dragged in, stepping out again, going back to the previous one, cross the room again, catching another demanding detail (I’ve got to go back for more!)
Unsettling? I’m not sure if that is the over riding emotion, but then am I making the mistake of looking at it all from the point of view of a painter? Should I park that outside (can I?) and read it as everyone else would? is that possible? “Ken Currie is renowned for his unsettling portrayal of the human figure”. is it unsettling? Ii is awe inspiring. Is the ambition, the scale, the sheer boldness the thing here? Or is it the richness of colour, those reds, those reds! But then you do look. you do start to (try to) read the faces, the relationships, the reality, the unreality, the being alone and at sea, the grandiose demands made, that he makes.
“Currie’s work has evolved, his focus shifting to confront ideas of mortality and corruption, both physical and moral” – these paintings are big in every way, they are a throwback, this is almost a dead language, a lost language, you don’t really expect to see paintings like these from someone working now, someone born in 1960, someone from Glasgow, you just don’t expect to walk into a room on a busy East London road on a Saturday lunch time and have your breath taken like this, to be blown away by it like this – the pure emotion of it, time invested (both is and to a lesser extent, mine), this is almost religious, this really is “wow”
“In these paintings, narratives from Ancient Greece interlock with contemporary seafaring tales from the Outer Hebrides, while their vast horizons stretch to traverse the passages in between…”
Conquest? Scenes of brutality, (missile trails?) who? What? Where? Where are we? Now? The future past (as someone might have asked?) but it is about the time he demands you invest here, the questions the artist throws out along with his commentary. is there a sense of the cinematic jump cut, I did want to say something along the (crass) lines of “widescreen”, that does seem rather lazy and I must admit I am searching for the language here to convey the many emotions here.
And It would be so easy to not look so closely at the small paintings upstairs after the almost overbearing drama of the main room, do allow yourself to take a close look up there though, do take an extra glance, there’s some gorgeous pieces upstairs, I almost said gorgeous little paintings, nothing is little here and those small pieces are equally as powerful, it would be so so easy to treat upstairs as a moment to get your breath back but look at that “little” one there…
Back down in the main room, we’re told the painting Black Boat, the title of this show as one of the great big pieces, refers to the poem by Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean of the same name, and yes I am going to cop out and quote the gallery’s own exhibition statement here; “In this triptych, the middle panel depicts a scene of distress, in which a crew of modern-day fishermen suffer alongside their haul on rough waters. The flanking panels portray solemn shrouded female figures, recalling the Fates (from Greek mythology), who appear to signal the loss of life on the sea. The curve of the hull of the boat here is repeated in all three panels of the triptych, creating a rolling waveform that amplifies a sense of nausea; meanwhile, the rhythm of the painting is firmly anchored by the jagged path of fishing lines…” and well yes, it is like going to the cinema, it is like trying to decode it all, these pieces do demand you read them rather than just look at them, that you watch them rather than just look at them. Is it a timeless way of doing things? Is it an art lost on us now? Ken Currie, born in 1960, a Glasgow Boy, a painter right here, right now, surely not though? Who paints like this now? Who goes to the trouble of it all now when you could just get your studio assistant to pickle a shark or get your team to spray it on a wall (and bring out the print later), who the hell does this?! This is brilliant, this is exciting, this is breathtaking.
He says, “This contrast between beauty and tragedy is there all the time.”
Footnote: As I came out of the gallery, almost out of breath, I caught sight of a couple of people taking a photo of the image in the gallery window, the horse’s head, I said to them “you know you can just go in”, they responded with a “no, we can’t go in there”, I offered to take them in and told them it was free, alas it was clear that, like so many people, they found the whole notion of going inside a formal art gallery rather intimidating. I wish there has been art galleries like this when I was a kid growing up on Anglesey (there were fishing boats and friends lost at sea but no art galleries), I wish someone had told me this kind of this could happen, that I could just walk in and no one would stop me. (sw)
The East London branch of Flowers Gallery is at 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP. The show goes on until 5th November 2022. Exhibition Opening Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm. Just ring the doorbell, this is a gallery where they actually smile when you ring their bell. Shoreditch Church end of Kingsland Road, just over from Great Art. Flowers have been brilliant in recent years, and all for free, very very easy to take all this for granted.
Do click on an image to enlarge and see it all, these poor quality images are there to give you a hint of a flavour. Do go if you have a chance.