Painting the Inside-Out: Folk Horror Sightlines Obscure
Aims and Objectives
This project sets out to explore possible Folk Horror sightlines (or their obscuration) as a means of developing my painting practice as well as to explore the place of painting in our current cultural and digital context. Folk Horror provides a thematic focus around which hangs a set of conceptual concerns, such as (overlooked) entropy, otherness, difference, and the ways in which the homely – ‘civilisation’ – and the domestic are divided and demarcated from the wild/s. I’m therefore interested in developing a painting practice that sets out to explore a ‘metaphysical realism’ as integral to folk horror to approach the pay-load of the Anthropocene and the digital obliquely. The method that I propose to do this is through subtle disturbances by, for example, othering the seemingly known and overlooked (chairs for example) and through attempts to find ways to demaster the traditional gaze of both landscape painting and environment building in digital contexts. As well as looking away from the use of traditional perspective found in painting, visual culture and digital game environments, I look to the entropic concerns that emerge in Folk Horror – in terms of both character/figurative tropes and environmental tropes. As well as developing a (symbolic and material) visual language to work with, I aim to produce a body of work around this thematic that extends folk horror aesthetics and thematics into the domain of a fine art practice.
JMW Turner provides something of a touchstone for my work through his focus on the dissolution of objects in the face of sublime and overpowering light. At the same time the work looks back to the ‘othering’ of fairie/magic world of early modern literature as in for example Spenser’s epic poem Fairie Queene (1590) as well as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)and MacBeth (c.1606). The call on the supernatural in these texts is connected to a foundational division between the human world and the natural world; woods for example representing realms of the liminal and outside the grasp of human agency. In addition, these are connected to powers that are able to shape and play with human fate, undermining the (largely protestant) notion of human kind as self-determining agents in and of the world. Gothic fiction is also informative, for similar reasons albeit here claustrophobia and the unconscionable are played up for sensationalist ends: from the landscapes of the foundational Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764) and (the more interesting) Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) through to the ur-type folk horror of MR James ghost stories and the pop culture metaphysics Of Anne Rice’s Vampire novels. All of these texts lead down the path towards Folk Horror as a recognised genre, consolidated in 1970s films such as The Wicker Man 1972 (based on David Pinner’s novel Ritual, set not in Scotland but in Cornwall), Blood of Satan’s Claw (1971) and WitchFinder General (1968). Unlike other gothic fiction, folk horror has an ambivalent relationship with the diegetic reality of the supernatural finding horror mainly in folk practices remaindered from ‘civilisation’ (although this has shifted more recently with TV folk Horrors such as Black Spot (2019). There is also of course important contextual informats that run in from the realms of philosophy: Burke’s sublime and its influence on Romanticism, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s pessimistic embrace of the death of god , and from competing religious ideas and traditions (shamanic, magical, protestant and catholic disagreements on idolatry, ritual, mediation etc). Pessimism will feature strongly in folk horror differentiated it from most other forms of feel-good pop culture along with what Spare calls atavistic resurgence and a sense of suppressed and hidden spiritual practices returning in monstrous form, a spiritual practice often related to an animistic connection of the cycles of nature. I would argue that folk horror is driven by a sense of loss of this connection and it is the articulation of that I want to develop in my practice.
A folk horror aesthetic is not therefore simply the stuff of film. Similar conditions have given rise to folk horror in painting. The two main figures that I would want to cite here are Andrew Wyeth and Leonora Carrington, alongside Kiki Smith (witchy assemblages and focus on the female body), Tim Shaw (implied animism, urban horror and paganism), Kate Walters (the subtle and alchemical body), Michelle Ohlsen. Some of these artists have their roots in romanticism, while others in surrealism. Andrew Wyeth warrants attention because he constructs a folk horror that comes out of his fascination with the otherness of the people and places around where he lives. Realist in style, the work is of great interest for my practice because it is a subtle and therefore more deeply creepy form of folk horror than proffered in fantasy/sensationalist modes. It is about absences often as well as deeply obsessive in Wyeth’s mode of making as well as in the construction of the painting’s surface. The seemingly picturesque landscapes of rural Maine is undermined on closer inspection – an arm hook left on a tree stump, a place laid on the table for an absent figure, a couple lying as if dead in their bed. Voyeurism and obsession lend these rural paintings a deep sense of folk horror. This is hugely influential on my work although I can only construct a different gaze, with different obsessions, landscapes and the development of my own visual aesthetic that is not grounded in an obsessive lifelong drawing practice. I am not afforded that time.
Lastly, there are a range of relevant theories that are intrinsic to folk horror. These include pessimism as mentioned before, but also concepts of the sublime, uncanny and the psychological condition of horror. Each of these are contextual and helpful to the development of a deep practice and engagement with folk horror. For example, Mary Douglas’s work on what constitutes culturally ‘dirt’ and its management, and psychoanalytic applications for her work, such as Julia Kristeva’s work on the abject as well as the foundational paper ‘The Uncanny’ by Sigmund Freud. In terms of critical commentary of folk horror, it is important to mention Adam Scovell’s book Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017) which consolidated the sense that folk horror has its own integrity and differed from horror generally. I would also include here my own academic work on witchcraft and weird fiction (monograph A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft, Voodoo in Film, 1999 and 2018), plus on the gothic, horror and folk horror in games (2002, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2015, 2017, 2020), folk horror in relation to Cornwall (Gothic Kernow: Cornwall as Strange Fiction, 2021), often focusing on the concept of human agency (and its foreshortening) and the influence of HP Lovecraft on game culture (2019). I will be calling these to develop a practical and conceptual engagement with how painting fits with a folk horror milieu.
This project will be supported through action-based research, using a reflective method to underscore an iterative process. Underpinning this method will be cycles of painting, making, and practical experimentations, borrowing from the sprint process used within software development. Alongside this, research that is more desk-based will be carried out, using resources such as the Witchcraft Museum in Cornwall, the Victor Wynd museum, and various libraries inlcuding writing a paper on folk horror and painting for an upcoming edition of a journal and building on writing I have already done of folk horror and games. As stated, I will broadly work using an agile process that is used for making games, this will be in a series of ‘sprints’, three-week blocks, each topped and tailed by reflection; each sprint begins with the development of a question for the sprint and will end with an evaluation that will inform the question for the next sprint. I’ll attend online art history lectures including those delivered weekly by Andrew Graham Dixon and I have signed up for a skills-based painting diploma at the Norfolk Painting School.
The principal outcome will be a body for work that gravitates around the folk horror nucleus. This will form the basis for a solo exhibition. I will also contribute to at least 3 collective exhibitions across the course of the two years and build on a current network of contacts.
In addition, I plan on writing at least one academic paper on the work and its context, building on my previous work on folk horror and present that work at an academic conference.
Work Plan in Summary
|Task Group 1 Project Management Initial Proposal writing Review of project goals and objectives, updated proposal|
|Task Group 2 Research Literature Review Collection Review Museums paper writing Conference Attend Weekly art-history/artists lectures|
|Task Group 3 Production (in 4-week cycles) Sprint (3 weeks x 3 months cycle) Define Sprint inquiry, Review, and evaluation (1 week at start/end of each sprint)|
|Task Group 4 Skills Development Weekly Life drawing and Diploma in Painting at Norfolk Painting School (3 days monthly for 15 months)|
|Task Group 5 Exhibition Exhibitions User studies Exhibition proposal writing and admin Apply NSA|
|Task Group 6 Term evaluation of overall project Evaluation|
|Task Group 7 Enter relevant Competitions|
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