Richard Starbuck’s sculptures and paintings appear to depict swirling vortices of thick, dark black hair, sometimes tightly woven together and intertwined, like close-up views of plaited hair; in other works the dark fronds swirl into an infinite tunnel. In a major new work a sinister dark form emerges from the maelstrom of eerily lit tresses, as if a dark-haired entity were dwelling within the hair of a giant being. There are allusions here to Japanese horror films such as Ring (1998) where the ghost of a century-old Sadako, her long dark hair covering most of her face, haunts the present via a cursed videotape. The association of long black hair and horror involving a deceased female protagonist can be traced back over nearly two centuries in Japanese mythology and folk tales to Yotsuya Kaidan, the 1825 kabuki play, probably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time. It tells the tale of the vengeful ghost, Oiwa – who is portrayed with long dark hair. However, Starbuck is not particularly referencing this genre alone; in previous work the hair-like material was used to conceal a flying saucer-shaped object, a recurring signifier of the uncanny since the mid-forties. Ernst Jentsch’s notion of the uncanny (‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’, 1906), later elaborated by Sigmund Freud (‘The Uncanny’, 1919), concerned the notion of the unfamiliar (Das Unheimliche) conflated with the familiar; an example would be the uncertainty as to whether an unconscious person is alive, and conversely whether a doll or robot is truly non-sentient.
The black mane of hair which fills many of these works, often to the edges, acts as a trope for mystery and concealment. It is what we cannot see, but suspect is there, which is more alluring – or terrifying. The hair functions like a stage curtain, a semi-permeable integument which separates us from the unknown. Starbuck has long been fascinated by various underground belief systems, from ufology and cattle mutilation to alien abduction and corn circles. It is not so much that the artist himself has a belief in any of these cult phenomena; it is more particularly a fascination with the social and psychological systems of belief which underpin them.
Sometimes dark shadows are cast on the striated texture of the hair, as if something – or someone – were hovering nearby, just out of sight. Occasionally the black mass of hair-like substance partly occludes an etiolated photographic image, usually of a face, as if reality were being obliterated by a sinister intrusion from an alternate universe. The fine curvilinear white lines are literally etched through the black pigment, revealing the white ground beneath. The controlled violence of this procedure brings to mind the scraping of nails on a hard surface; a desire to break through the barrier; a painful trace of existence.
When the work appears to veer towards the completely abstract, we can nevertheless detect a connection with the more ‘figurative’ works: a vertical series of concentric black curves could be a sign for the dark haired ghost. This series of paintings function as road signs on the superhighway of the sinister, warning of the imminence of a monolithic portal to the supraphysical.
Richard Dyer © 2015
Richard Dyer is Editor in Chief of Third Text, the international scholarly journal which offers critical perspectives on contemporary art and culture; Art Editor of Wasafiri literary magazine and a Contributing Editor to Ambit literature and art magazine. He is a widely published art critic, and long-standing member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics); he gave the opening keynote speech at the 45th AICA Congress at the University of Zurich in July 2012. His critical writing has appeared in Contemporary, Frieze, Flash Art, Art Review, Art Press, The Independent, The Guardian, Time Out and many other publications and catalogues. His forthcoming monograph on UK-based artist Wolfe von Lenkiewicz will be published by Anomie Publishing in 2015.