THE ON­COL­O­GISTS by Ken Cur­rie (2002)

Scot­tish Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Ed­in­burgh

The Herald - Arts - - Arts -

Some artists mark trends; Ken Cur­rie deals with un­com­fort­able is­sues of gen­eral con­cern. Driven by pow­er­ful moral and so­cial im­per­a­tives, he has de­vel­oped an ap­pro­pri­ately ex­pres­sive style. The sub­jects are three pro­fes­sors from the De­part­ment of Surgery and Molec­u­lar On­col­ogy at Ninewells Hospi­tal in Dundee.

Each man is an ex­pert in his field. Cen­trally placed is Pro­fes­sor Cuschieri, at the cut­ting edge of ex­per­i­men­tal surgery. To his right, Pro­fes­sor Lane holds notes on the dis­cov­ery and iso­la­tion of the “guardian an­gel” cell, P53. Op­po­site, Pro­fes­sor Steel, one of the lead­ing ex­po­nents in the fight against co-lat­eral can­cer, has blood on his hands.

It is a pic­ture full of sym­bol­ism. Their tiny lights seem to­tally in­ad­e­quate for the hideously dark space that oc­cu­pies cen­tre stage. Th­ese men per­form their mir­a­cles on death’s edge. Heavy drapes, a con­stant mo­tif with Cur­rie – whose in­ter­est in Beck­ett and Brecht is well doc­u­mented – pro­vide an ap­pro­pri­ate set­ting for men who spend their lives in a theatre of a very dif­fer­ent kind, and who oc­ca­sion­ally bring down the fi­nal cur­tain on the theatre of the grotesque.

Al­though the sub­ject is shock­ing, the paint­ing is del­i­cate and exquisitely beau­ti­ful. Frag­ile forms emerge through a sort of anal­gesic haze. Pale spec­tral fig­ures trem­ble against the thick dark­ness with in­ten­sity akin to the pierc­ing vi­brato of a high vi­o­lin. It’s a sub­lime vi­sion: a Sartre-like di­a­logue be­tween be­ing and noth­ing­ness.

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