Ken Currie

Scottish Mercenaries

1987

Not on display
Artist
Ken Currie born 1960
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 2740 x 2130 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Stephen Baycroft and Donald Holt 2004
Reference
T11860

Summary

Scottish Mercenaries 1987 is a large figurative oil painting by Scottish artist Ken Currie. It depicts a crowd of male figures – the mercenaries referenced in the title – with the focus drawn to three at the centre. They form a triangular composition, with two seated and one standing, while behind them the crowd recedes into the background. Two of the mercenaries in the central group pore over a map and a book that features images of a gun and a figure wearing a gas mask. The third mercenary turns his head to direct his attention out towards the viewer. In the upper part of the painting are two black female wrestlers on a raised stage, which forms the point of focus for the crowd. The wrestlers are framed by a metal structure that resembles a globe and are locked together in the act of fighting, hinting at the violence that may be being planned by the mercenaries at the centre. Two spotlights flanking the globe structure emit white rays of light that add further compositional emphasis, first hitting the performers before filtering through the crowd and onto the central figures. This light cuts through the thick, hazy air of the room, a result of the cigarettes being smoked and perhaps also theatrical smoke, creating a high contrast between light and dark that evokes a cinematic style. Despite some vibrant colours – including reds, oranges, blues and yellows – overall the palette is devoid of warmth, with bruised, purplish flesh tones and a heavy use of black paint.

Made in Glasgow in 1987, Scottish Mercenaries is an example of a period when the artist sought to portray the harsh realities of life in the modern urban city, taking his surroundings of Glasgow as inspiration. Other examples from this period include Glasgow Triptych 1986 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) and On the Edge of a City 1987 (Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester). During the 1980s Currie’s work was heavily influenced by artists of the Weimar Republic (the name for the state of Germany in 1919–39) and the Mexican muralists of the 1930s, in particular George Grosz and Diego Rivera. Currie’s work is realist in style and is informed by his strongly upheld socialist values, based on the belief that art has the power to make social change. Describing his work in 1988, Currie explained: ‘I have to maintain a dialectical tension between positive and negative aspects of the world in order to pursue both a critical and visionary realism … On the basis of these convictions my aim, in the end, is to paint about the realities of the human condition as well as to depict the existing possibilities for world reconstruction.’ (Currie in Third Eye Centre 1988, unpaginated.)

Currie’s choice of the term ‘mercenary’, which refers to a soldier who fights for money and without allegiance to a particular country, implies a thirst for violence satisfied by greed. This is reflected in the ghoulish appearance of the figures in this painting, an effect created through the predominantly dark colour palette. Apparently devoid of remorse or humanity, these figures are representative of Currie’s late 1980s exploration of the degradation of urban life. Based on photographs and films he took of Glasgow, and using his friends and himself as references for the figures, these works offer a voyeuristic gaze into a world of poverty and violence. In a 1988 essay the art critic and curator Julian Spalding read Scottish Mercenaries in light of this, imagining that the seated mercenary in the lower left portion of the painting is a grown-up version of a toddler seen in a later painting, Saturdays 1988, which is part of Currie’s A Scottish Triptych: Nightshift, Departure, Saturdays (private collection). Highlighting the toddler’s fascination with a toy warplane and missile, and pointing out that his hat resembles the adult soldier’s in Scottish Mercenaries, Spalding claims: ‘Currie shows this kid grown up. He still lives with mum, and wears a boy’s socks and scarf, and the woolly combat mask with its face slits turned to the back of his head. His mind is full of war games as he peers down at a map of Central America, while two real mercenaries play cat with his mouse brain and feed his thoughts with tales of licensed violence.’ (Spalding in Third Eye Centre 1988, unpaginated.)

Scottish Mercenaries has been described by art historian and dealer William Hardie as being ‘amongst the most powerful images to emerge from the new painting in Glasgow’ in the 1980s (Hardie 2010, p.209). In doing so Hardie highlights Currie’s significance at this time among a group of contemporary figurative painters, including Stephen Barclay, Steven Campbell, Peter Howson, Mario Rossi and Adrian Wiszniewski, all of whom were featured in the exhibition The New Image Glasgow at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre in 1985.

Further reading
Ken Currie, exhibition catalogue, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow 1988.
William Hardie, Scottish Painting: 1837 to the Present, Glasgow 2010, pp.206–9.

Elizabeth Rose
July 2018

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