To say Ken Currie is a painter is to state the obvious. A graduate of Glasgow School of Art and a member of that generation of artists known as the New Glasgow Boys – a group which includes Peter Howson, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski – he has spent four decades producing work rooted in the human body. Its form, its shape and, in particular, its anatomy and the many ailments which affect, afflict and contort it.

His celebrated 2002 portrait of three professors of oncology from Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital is typical. Spectral and haunting, it’s a shocking reminder of our own mortality. But his many other portraits are no less arresting. Gallery-goers may sometimes recoil from the images he portrays, but there’s no gainsaying his popular appeal. You can’t not ‘get’ a Ken Currie painting, or feel something when you gaze on it.

What’s less well-known about the 63-year-old is that he is also an avid writer. He has penned reviews of exhibitions, articles about his own work and the work of others, kept up a voluminous correspondence with students, gallerists and critics, and for decades poured this thoughts – on art, politics, you name it – into a studio journal.

Not that his efforts were always appreciated. “When we were at Glasgow School of art in the 1980s, the idea that you would write about your work was totally frowned upon,” he tells me. “The idea that you would write about your own concerns as an artist, your own feelings, your own work, was regarded as a complete betrayal of what painting was. Your paintings always had to speak for themselves and I always thought that was quite an ignorant view of things … I couldn’t resist resist writing my feelings and thoughts down.”

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Meanwhile the flow of words for public consumption tapered off after a catalogue essay he wrote was published in a Scottish newspaper and a reader commented that Currie was a better writer than he was a painter. “That really stung. And I actually decided there and then that I was never going to write another thing or publish another thing. I didn’t want people to think that.”

Another reason for withdrawing was friction with the generation of Glasgow School of Art graduates which followed the New Glasgow Boys – graduates of the school’s thrusting Environmental Art course, who turned by and large to conceptual art rather than figurative painting. “They were justifying their position by making a really quite relentless critique of the painting which had come before,” he says. “Things were changing really quickly then, back in the 1990s. I got into quite a few public scrapes with this younger generation and their supporters. I thought this is not what I should be doing with my energies.”

But the journal writing continued, in paint-splattered notebooks and, from 2009, on a laptop. “I would write about things that were going through my mind at the time, relating to what was going on in the world and what I felt about art history and contemporary art.”

What Ken Currie has done with his energies over the course of his career, as well as the story of his relationship with his own writings, journals and correspondence, is now the subject of a new book, produced in collaboration with the recipient of much of that correspondence – Tom Normand, professor of art history at the University of St Andrews.

Ken Currie: Paintings And Writings offers a linear survey of Currie’s work, from 1980s examples such as The People’s March and his murals for Glasgow’s People’s Palace which make explicit his left-wing beliefs and interest in social struggle, to unsettling and enigmatic paintings. A good example is 2018’s Blind Red, a dark and ominous portrait showing a black-clad figure – a woman, probably – with a bright red piece of fabric draped over the head obscuring the face.

But threaded through the visual chronology are extracts from Currie’s writing, many taken from letters and exchanges with the Normand, as well as from catalogue essays, reviews of exhibitions and, of course, those studio journals.

And so we learn about Currie’s fondness for artists such as Francisco Goya and the Frenchman Fernand Léger, a dedicated Communist. His impressions of visiting East Berlin in 1987 with his former Glasgow School of Art tutor Alexander Moffat (“like going back 25 years in time. The city was so run down and much of the damage during the war was still very visible … The city was very melancholic and atmospheric.”). Even his thoughts on more personal subjects, such as the death of his father.

The Herald: Ken Currie examines the human condition in all its darknessKen Currie examines the human condition in all its darkness (Image: free)

In an extract from his journal accompanying 2012 painting The Bath House, he writes of that event: “When the moment came I expected something transcendent, not in a religious sense, but a powerful feeling of passing. Instead, it was upsettingly banal, certainly in my mind, as the only thing it reminded me of is when you switch your computer off.”

What readers will not find in the new book is an explanation of the paintings themselves, despite Currie’s rejection of the idea artists shouldn’t write about their art. “I would never, ever try and write down an explanation of a painting, or what a painting means, because I myself very often have no idea of what they mean, if they mean anything at all,” he says. “To me they’re just images. I want the viewer to engage with the image.”

Instead, where his thoughts and writings are made public as they are in grand fashion here, he wants them to generate just a sort of contextualising background glow. To illuminate subtly rather than spotlight.

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“One of the most common reactions to my work is that it’s really very dark, it’s too harrowing, it’s not easy to look at, it’s disturbing,” he says. “It was quite important for me, via Tom, to engage with people about the kind of thoughts I was having that was leading me to make these kinds of images … Particularly dealing with subject matter that’s dark like death and war, it was important for me to let people know this was coming from a genuinely thoughtful place rather than some psychotic obsession.”

He is not, he adds, “some kind of tortured soul screaming at the moon.” His writings prove it.

Ken Currie: Paintings And Writings is out now (Luath Press, £30)