Artist Karen Strang’s work, and her recent exhibition The Burn and the Tide, raise issues that demand to be explored. Here she is in conversation with Alexander Moffat

ALEXANDER Moffat: Subject matter is the essential thing. All great artists of the past had subject matter; a lot of terrible artists today don’t have subject matter. It is one of the crises of our time that so many artists have technique but address nothing. Your subject here, Karen, is witches, witchcraft, the portrayal of women as witches, in history and now. In the London Review of Books, there’s a scholarly review by Malcolm Gaskill (“Unnatural Rebellion”, LRB, November 2, 2017) and there’s a particular phrase I think is very striking: “the modernity of witchcraft”. Most of us think witches being persecuted and burned is something that happened a long time ago, but there are at least 500,000 witchfinders operating now in South Africa.

Karen Strang: I’m always brought back to what Lys Hansen once said, that painters need the responsibility to bear witness and that’s what we do. It’s fortunate that I didn’t live in our Scottish killing times, but in addressing that particular subject I’m actually addressing something that’s ongoing and it’s ingrained, sadly, in what appears to be our human condition of exploitation and taking advantage of others.

And it comes down to otherness as well, that when people don’t fit a particular regime or society they are then ousted or persecuted or killed. I’d like very much that when people come and see this work that they don’t think, ‘oh well that’s the past, it’s about superstition’. It’s not about superstition. Painting for me is a political act. People who want to exploit situations divide people; you see this now, you see this in wars now, in Syria, Palestine, this idea of dividing.

The people at the top, the high-heid-yins, they keep their hands clean, they foment this ongoing nature between people. And it’s not just in Africa but in our own societies where we call it trafficking, we call it sex worker exploitation, but it comes down to taking advantage of people and using fear. Fear is the biggest component in this narrative.

Sandy: So you decided on the subject, but it started with landscape, didn’t it, can you tell us about that? There’s a specific purpose in mind?

Karen: There is. I grew up in the central belt of Scotland. It is a very industrialised part of Scotland, not the most beautiful, partly because it has been raped and pillaged throughout. I actually have a subtitle to my exhibition, particularly the landscapes, which is “Stripped, Shafted and Dammed” – and that’s the land not the people.

It wasn’t natural beauty – which I find difficult in the central belt of Scotland. People say we’ve got the Ochil Hills, go up the glens, but even those places have been deforested, dammed, the mills, banking of rivers, so for me it was a highly processed landscape that I was working with, and one that had a lot of dark history.

Quarrying, mining, abuse of land and abuse of people on the land; those people were in many respects enslaved. From that I found the connection with the Scottish Witchcraft Trials. I discovered the landscapes I was being drawn to were also the landscapes of a lot of the settlements where the women who were persecuted, and their persecutors, came from. So I set about discovering the history of that particular area of Scotland and it’s also a brutal history. I discovered these rather dark, desolate spaces. One particular location, that I actually did twice, is the Ness of Torryburn, in the west of Fife, on the Firth of Forth. This was land that had been used for coal mining and salt panning.

You’re left now with a very strange, almost moonscape, a dark rock, the way the sun shines on it. You look across and see Grangemouth, you can see what was Longannet on one side; it’s not pretty. It’s also where they buried a poor unfortunate called Lilias Adie as a witch. You talk about killing fields and it’s this whole area. If they’re not buried there, they’re burned close by. Very recently I discovered that for the salt-panning there, they actually boiled up blood (not human) to purify the salt, so it would have been a Goyaesque hell that you would have witnessed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the smell of the burning blood apparently and the smoke coming up.

Sandy: So it’s a series of discoveries. You dig deeper and deeper, you’re raking the materials in the landscape, the ore, the way the tides come in, all these natural things are being pulled together in a creative thought process. Then suddenly that begins to illuminate a way ahead, gives you a way into the paintings themselves, especially the coven.

Karen: People who come to my studio will see that I spend a lot of time doing very straightforward figure drawing. Without understanding the form, the musculature, the flesh, the way the light hits onto the colours, you will not get that sense. Each of these are individual people I’ve had in my studio and drawn from life.

Sandy: I’m thinking of the expressive nature of a lot of 20th-century Polish painting – not just Polish painting, Polish writing, Polish music (contemporary Polish music is unique in its expressionist force, unlike any other music: Penderecki, Górecki, Lutos?awski – very powerful composers; again, they’ve got the subject matter). I made a big trip in Poland about five years ago on the Witkiewicz trail, starting off in Gdansk, going to S?upsk where there’s a colossal collection of Witkacy’s. He’s a very expressive painter working in the first half of the 20th century, then killing himself in 1939 because he knew what was going to happen when the Russians arrived. And then we have Kantor in the second part of the 20th century, another very expressive, almost expressionistic painter, a theatre man, who really comes out of Witkiewicz. So, being partly Polish and having gone to Poland time after time from childhood onwards, how do you feel this emerges in the way you paint?

Karen: I think that the triptych Maiden, Mother, Crone is probably the one that most defines that aspect of Polish iconography. This is not about religion but is about religion, if that makes sense. That is the piece that is closest to my Polish roots, and it’s the idea that the Virgin Mary in Polish culture is based on the moon goddess or the triple-headed goddess.

How do I connect with that Polish heritage in my work? It’s not something I do consciously. I did at one time want to examine where that cultural heritage came from, and I spend a year and a half in Poland and did my post-grad there. I did spend time going into churches and looking at the traditional art form as well, but of course it was also the time of Solidarno and a lot of underground performance art, so I got quite heavily involved in that side of things rather than the painting.

It’s quite odd, because I went there thinking ‘I’m going to just focus on painting’. Every time I go to Poland, to Warsaw, I have to go to the Museum of Ethnography. It’s my favourite museum and they have these shamanistic figures there as well. About a year ago they had an exhibition of Polish witches, just by sheer chance.

Sandy: My final question, back to painting. We talked about portrait painting, about landscape, colour, pigment. What is it you think that painting can bring right now, to this kind of subject matter, that other art forms can’t?

Karen: I think painting is the most relevant art form for this climate because there’s an immediacy about it, a directness between the practitioner and the material end result. We’re not looking at something where there’s a component in between, a device which can dilute or diminish the message. By that I mean, if we look at art forms which rely a lot on technology or rely on third party platforms, whether it’s the internet or large curated spaces, it’s about speculation or marketing.

If we just go back to the synergy between the artist and the paint or the artist and the subject, it’s very powerful. It’s not diluted down or made appropriate to a particular audience, it just is what it is. You can’t really censor a painting by taking it away. If you’re true to what you paint, you just do it and nobody can say, well you’ve got to put a little more pink there, a little more blue there. There isn’t any of that post-editing that you can have with other art forms.

Sandy: So when Edvard Munch was asked what’s the difference between taking a photograph and making a painting, he said “The problem is you can’t take a camera to hell with you.”

Karen: That’s it.

Karen Strang’s paintings are now on view in Marcelle House Studios, 2 Marshill, Alloa, Tuesday-Friday, 11-5pm