Tuesday, 17 September 2013


Steel Cot, 2008, Oil on canvas, 168 x 137.5 cm © Ken Currie, courtesy Flowers Gallery

What is there to see in this picture? The impact is immediate: a cot and a mattress, set against a floor and walls like thunderous black clouds.

But cots should be where babies sleep safely, snug and cosy; probably wooden or wicker, prettily painted in pastels,  warmly upholstered, sweet smelling. Some are called cradles, with all the association of being held in loving arms

But this cot is the type into which no one goes of their own volition. Steel bars belong to prisons or perimeters and will brook no argument: they are designed to pen you in or to keep you out. It's where  the very young and the very old are placed.

But here is the paradox: cots or cribs or cradles are often wondrous places. Think of the Christmas story, of Christmas carols, of the Christmas crib here each year in London's Trafalgar Square beneath a huge tree donated by the good people of Norway.  Alternatively think of the fairy tales where nasty things happen. Babies are snatched up and grisly changelings put in their place. Poor Sleeping Beauty must have been lying in a cot in all innocence when the wicked fairy godmother, with no invitation to the christening in her pocket, got a terrible revenge for her exclusion. Later, when Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spinning wheel she had to wait a hundred years before a handsome prince happened to pass by and woke her with a kiss.

And what about the lullaby sung to children for centuries:
Hush-a-by baby
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all...

The only other artist I know who can  reach parts others can't reach by transforming ordinary objects in the way that Currie does is Mona Hatoum. Her Mouli-Julienne x 21  is a copy of a 1960s vegetable shredder, which I first saw in the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain. I used one like it to purée carrots and spinach and apple for my children, only this was enlarged 21 times. And at its feet were three discs with multiple cutting and shredding edges, also like the ones I used, except that they were two metres in diameter. They lay there slim, flat and self-effacing, as if carelessly lying around in a terrible Hansel and Gretel kitchen.  A nightmare.

'Ken Currie is one of the outstanding figurative painters of his generation'. 
 So begins the introduction to an exhibition of his paintings at 
the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 
which runs until September 22nd.


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