John Stark: Witchcraft & Warfare, at Charlie Smith Gallery

British artist John Stark has recently returned from Korea. His current exhibition at Charlie Smith Gallery includes some of his paintings from Korea, where he travelled extensively, in particular in Yeongyang County, Gyeongsangbuk-do, home of Ilwol san (“The Haunted Mountain”), said to be the final stronghold of Shamanism.

John Stark: Witchcraft & Warfare

Friday 10 October – Saturday 15 November 2014
Charlie Smith London, 336 Old Street, 2nd Floor, London EC1V 9DR, charliesmithlondon.com
Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm or by appointment

Above the waist it was semi anthropomorphic, though its chest had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile. The back was piebald with yellow and black and dimly suggested the squamous coverings of snakes. Below the waist though, it was the worst, for here all human resemblance left-off and sheer fantasy began. H. P. Lovecraft – The Dunwich Horror.

John Stark: Sacrifice (2014)
John Stark: Sacrifice (2014). Oil on Board, 30 x 22 cm

CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present John Stark with his third one person exhibition at the gallery.

In this exhibition Stark presents a new collection of paintings that appear to depict a world divided, besieged and devoid of moral constraints. By opposing common assumptions based on Christian mechanisms, for example that prayer is purer than incantation; and by addressing the idea that modern civilisation uses Christian morality to legitimise its own violence, Stark seeks to go beyond centuries of doctrine and propaganda to express the reality of the horror that lies beneath western reason.

The centrepiece of this exhibition, ‘No Man’s Land’, Stark’s largest painting to date, includes numerous figures: witches, demons, satyrs, Greek gods, zombie soldiers and pin up girls who cavort and coagulate in various rituals and invocations. It is a place of metaphysical darkness where such perversions are permitted to exist. Recalling historical allegory painting by way of pulp horror and erotica, we are presented with a Bacchanalian depiction of indulgence, malevolence and empowerment that refers to the cyclical births, evolutions and downfalls of societies throughout history, everywhere.

But there is a deep underlying contradiction at the heart of these paintings, where the artist employs traditions and narratives in order to demystify and undermine those very same traditions and narratives. By embracing otherness Stark parodies the familiar and in doing so ensures his position remains ambiguous, with the viewer never quite able to make certified judgements, both morally and aesthetically. Our intellectual assumptions are challenged as we are forced to contemplate the contrary relationships between reality and illusion; modern and primitive; good and evil; sacred and profane; salvation and damnation. Stark tells us that these are not contradictions but interrelated aspects of a complex universe, where hierarchies are dissolved and polarities dismantled.

John Stark: Witchcraft & Warfare

Text by Jessica Lack | Flesh Remains

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 7 th 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.

Ultimately it is the shadow of war and its accompanying depravities that linger over these paintings – one cast with a vigour that has eluded the Chapman Brothers. The beasts and the witches, the muddled fumbling of satyrs and porn stars climaxing to a frenzy, are simply a microcosm of human vulnerability. Silenus believed that it was better not to be born at all, that the world of the dead was preferable to that of the living. Stark’s paintings, in all their degeneracy, are a humane call to arms, a seductive defence of the right to exist.

One thought on “John Stark: Witchcraft & Warfare, at Charlie Smith Gallery

  1. Thanks for this article, it was very interesting. I would say a similar system or structure of violence underneath reason, lies in other societies, for example traditional caste Hindu society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.