|'The Siege', 2014 Oil on wood panel 112x154cm|
Witchcraft & Warfare
Highway 31 stops abruptly, ten kilometres short of the North Korean border. All roads north end like this, snipped off like short fuses waiting for ignition from a lighted match. Beyond is the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a pervasive void framed by a hazy grey mountain range. You can’t see much of North Korea from here, but it doesn’t stop tourists filming the open range. Their jerky panoramas accompanied by the timbrey whistle of a high wind on the microphone.
This no-go zone is the inspiration for Witchcraft and Warfare, John Stark’s new series of paintings on show at CHARLIE SMITH LONDON. The paintings can be divided into two parts. Those created while Stark was living in Seoul in 2013 and those made on his return to England earlier this year.
‘Prey’ and ‘Enter’ capture something of the old shamanic mysticism that still exists on the margins of the Korean Peninsula. It is a hidden world, rarely spoken of, but integral to the Korean way of life. These paintings are a continuation of an earlier series he made called ‘Field Work’, documenting the Haunted Mountain where the Shamans still operate.
Among the myriad of oddities that go hand-in-hand with being a dislocated expat in South Korea, Stark was frequently mistaken for an American soldier. Out of the Promethean shadows of this alienation came the paintings he made on his return to England which confront imperialism and the moral dilemma between East and West.
In ‘No Man’s Land’ a naked woman rises up out of a swarm of slatterns into a forked lunar light, a Mother Teresa horror show saint. Beneath her is a scene of unimaginable gruesomeness. Skulls hang from a tree; a woman with bloody stumps has a rope tied to her breasts, which is being pulled by her spinsterish companion. Their faces, pictures of middle-aged fatigue, resemble dowager aunts who should be exploring the back streets of Florence, prostrating themselves on the altar of Fra Angelico, not submerged in the dank waters of this Dantesque hell.
I’m not sure if Stark has read Alan Moore’s graphic novel Lost Girls, a mix of bawdy humour and pornographic de Sade depravity, but there’s a similarity in the way Moore’s sexual imagination runs riot while still retaining a strong moral agenda. Stark, like Moore has a prodigiously fertile imagination, yet the real drama in this painting exists not with the furies, but in the intense kryptonite eyes of the watchtower as it gazes out over no-mans land to a cool, silvery figure in the foreground.
That radioactive green, the colour of Fairy Liquid, resurfaces again in ‘The Lookout’ and ‘Conjuring an Armed Skeleton’, in the pensive face of the watcher and then as a freakish fire sprung from a grinning cauldron. There is something unearthly about the colour’s lurid artificiality, perhaps because it is also the green of night vision. A device first used to brutal effect during the Korean War, and now a familiar technique in low-budget horror movies ever since Blair Witch. I feel this paradox is not lost on Stark, an artist who has made a career out of re-working old masters in audacious new ways.
‘Conjuring an Armed Skeleton’ is a great piece of theatre in the manner of Goya. With its pig’s head, mock-Celtic symbols and mad-as-a-box-of-cats witch, it embraces a long tradition of undead cadavers dating back to early International Gothic. What happens when you call up a rotting soldier covered in seaweed and slime? Who knows? The women in the painting seem peculiarly uninterested in the results of their alchemy; the wraith is more ghoulish abstraction than cautionary tale. Skeleton soldiers rose up from the depths in Brueghel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’, yet Stark is also alluding to the West’s romanticism of Orientalism in fantasy films like ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’. There are obvious references to gaming here too, particularly in the flatness of colour, reminiscent of CGI while those surfaces, as shiny as plastic wrap, say something about the rampant capitalism witnessed by Stark in South Korea.
The dead solider theme continues in ‘The Siege’ with a wounded GI staggering about in the shallows while Bacchanalian revellers party on. Stretched out on the shoreline is the blubbery mass of Silenus, tutor to Dionysus who, when drunk, became incredibly wise. For Stark this sated creature represents Western Enlightenment, except here his intellectual brilliance has been entirely eclipsed by Lara Croft’s buttocks. It’s a nice moment of balloon pricking.