John Stark’s shamanistic “Field Work” on show in Milan

John Stark, a British artist based in South Korea, currently has an exhibition in Milan. His paintings are based on his experiences travelling around many of the remote areas of South Korea and exploring the folk culture and landscape – particularly in Yeongyang County, Gyeongsangbuk-do, the site of Ilwol san (“The Haunted Mountain”), which is said to be the final stronghold of Shamanism. Some of the work will be on show in London next Spring at the Charlie Smith gallery.

John Stark: Field Work

20th September – 29th October 2013
Edward Cutler Gallery | Via dell’Orso 12 (Secondo Cortile) | 20121 Milano | Italia [Map]

John Stark: The Garden (2013), oil on panel, 50 x 60 cm
John Stark: The Garden (2013), oil on panel, 50 x 60 cm

“The real, the unique misfortune: to see the light of day”

– E. M. Cioran: The Trouble with Being Born

Endeavouring to define reality in an age where the truth remains ever more obscured, Stark attempts to renegotiate the relationship between the self and the world and in doing so investigates both the modality of the visual and the epistemologies of both science and spirituality. The result is a neo-tantric distillation both ontic and shamanic, a creative exploration of human meaning and of the shadows nature casts upon it.

The settings and figures within Field Work are partly based on real experience mostly in South Korea and in particular in an area known as Yeongyang-gun within which is Ilwol san – The Haunted Mountain. It is said the ghost of Hwang-ssi-buin; who fled to mountain to commit suicide after being badly mistreated by her husband and family, brings misfortune to the dishonest and abusive and fortune to those who are sincere, kind and benevolent. People found that if they built shrines to console her rage and sorrow, their prayers where mysteriously answered.

Sharing the territory with certain covert factions of the military, that part of Korea is one of the last redoubts of Shamanism (“Mudang”), once the most widespread national religion but today stigmatised and despised as superstition. Consequently this has led to its periodical suppression but also paradoxically ensured its survival throughout Korean history. Nonetheless, shamanic ritual is still considered by many Koreans to be the only resort when seeking answers and respite from day to day problems or ruinous life crises relating to illness, death or financial distress with some medical anthropologists placing its practice firmly within the realms of traditional medicine. Its modern existence seems to be a cultural paradox born out of necessity and thus rendered as one perpetually burdened by the problems of an advanced capitalist society, at odds with their historically dislocated beliefs.

John Stark: Hanged Crow. Oil on wood panel, 36 x 28 cm
John Stark: Hanged Crow. Oil on wood panel, 36 x 28 cm

The works presented here express diverse methodologies, often veiling a secret light or a vital heat that remains just out of view. The Shaman’s Garden presents us with a rocky enclave that houses an apiary, drawing parallels between shamanic practices and the craft of beekeeping. Interior View places the viewer within a makeshift ascetic hut constructed from cheap materials: scaffolding, a tin roof, plastic sheeting and window boxes become shrines, with candles flickering within. A spirited utilitarianism pervades and a sublime light permeates the stillness of the dark space. Elsewhere in this shadowy world, hooded figures toil at their daily practice and the remnants of rituals are descried; a Dying Fire, an Elixir and an Outstanding Stone. The uncanny sense of place which Stark refers to as The Haunted Mountain is at once realistic and fantastic, familiar yet foreign and speaks of a synchro-mystic coalescence of ancient and modern, empirical knowledge and silent intuition, witchcraft, warcraft and the workaday.

The pursuit of truth through the creation, or perception, of these works leads us towards an experience of the true meaning of occult: that which is clandestine, recondite, and perhaps inherently unknowable. Stark offers us images which operate between immersion and reinterpretation, fragmentation and the whole, and which ultimately confront the apparent self with the necessity of its dependence upon the vertiginously unfathomable.

John Stark was born in the United Kingdom in 1979. He studied at the University of West England, Bristol, from 1998 to 2001 and then Royal Academy Schools, London, from 2001 to 2004. Stark has exhibited internationally in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dublin, Klaipeda, Lausanne, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington DC, Munich, Naples, Rome, Basel and Zurich, including Grieder Contemporary, Somerset House, Ana Cristea Gallery, John Hansard Gallery and Torrance Art Museum. Most recently, he has shown at Galeria Cadaques with The Chapman Brothers, Marcus Harvey, James White and others. He is represented by Charlie Smith London where he has regularly exhibited since 2006. Stark’s work is featured in private collections globally.

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