THE ONCOLOGISTS by Ken Currie (2002)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
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.