Maggie Dunlap “Gilded Splinters” at No Gallery, New York

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I grew up in Britain in the 1970s. Everything was folk terror. I lived on the wild edges Dartmoor in Plymouth, Devon. Genette Tate was thirteen years old when she disappeared while delivering papers in the Devonshire village Aylesbeare on 19 August 1978. The local papers printed a haunting monochrome photograph of her abandoned bike on a country road. Soon, the case gained national attention and London-based media converged. It was a blessing for the press, a juicy murder case in the summer lulls that usually provide little for a news cycle. As is often the case when metropolitan outsiders descend upon an isolated community, the hacks were left unnerved by what they found, and soon pointed the finger of suspicion at Genette’s father and the other residents at Barton Farm Cottage. The whispers of the media were that evil was in the house. This continued for many decades. These urban sophisticates, it is not surprising to learn, were completely wrong. Robert Black was likely the man who murdered Genette. A van driver from South East London would rumble down the lanes of Britain, grabbing children and eating them in the back of a specially-modified vehicle. For all the folk horror trappings the killer was a predatory innovator of modernity who cynically bet on the carefree innocent and gentle routines in the countryside. Bobbie Black: a demon of smoke; the evil that comes from without.

Maggie Dunlap is an American Southerner who has spent some time in the South West of England—particularly Devon and Cornwall. She is able to sense the connections between British and American cultures, as well the tensions and contradictions that are inherent in any form of folk horror. Her work involves implements that can be fashioned into crudely effective weapons capable of injurious harm, but also protective charms and other symbols crafted to guarantee good order and the continuance of life’s richly beneficent cycle. Dunlap’s creations appear benign, and likely to be put to good use, but they carry an eerie undertow or grim fascination that hints at darker possibilities. They were often thrown into the fires, or trampled, splintered and scattered.

Because sometimes evil lies within. Witness the “witchcraft” murder of seventy-five-year-old Charles Walton at the Firs farm, on the slopes of Meon Hill in the village of Lower Quinton on the Saint Valentine’s Day, 1945. A pruning hook was used to open the throat and a pitchfork was used to pin the victim down. The blood was leaking onto the soil. Walton knew his killer almost certainly.

And other times we just don’t know. What is the case, for example, with the Delphi child mutilations in rural Indiana, Deer Creek Township. The case is set to go to trial in this year. The defense claims that the murders were committed by Odinists as part of a pagan sacrifice. The bodies were staged in ritualistic positions. Or this coming summer’s other blockbuster trial, the so-called Idaho Four, a group of Instagram-savvy students butchered as they slept in their beds. It seems like the old ways have never left us. Our spiritual imaginations, abiding paranoias, and criminal perversities just won’t let them go.

By Philip Best

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