Explaining his use of alien characters in his early songs in 1997, David Bowie said, “They were metaphysically in place to suggest that I felt alienated, that I felt distanced from society and that I was really in search of some kind of connection.”
At first glance, David Gough’s paintings seem to be about death. Human forms stripped of their skin, hollow eye sockets and sinister grins against an apocalyptic sky challenge the viewer. But, after speaking with him I realized that his paintings are actually about the experience of living in a profound way. David uses death as a window into life the same way that Bowie used outer space as a metaphor for inner space. By exploring and demystifying the symbolism of death, David opens up an avenue for us to confront the way that we live.
I met David at the Hive Gallery last Saturday night. He is a featured artist in their current show, Hell. Unassuming and quiet, David approached me as I was posing in front of his work “Legend” for a picture. He simply asked me if I liked the painting. Since I’d been gaping at it for a good ten minutes, like didn’t seem like the right word. When I found out that he was the artist, I was excited at the chance to get a few good quotes to paraphrase for a blog posting. What happened instead was an exceptional meeting of the minds that I only tore myself away from reluctantly a couple of hours later.
Born in Ireland, most of David’s childhood was spent in an impoverished area of Liverpool, England in the early nineteen seventies. While raised Irish Catholic, he has rejected the severe and controlling aspects of the faith. We found we both worship at the altar of another David, David Bowie. David Gough’s Catholic upbringing definitely shows through in his art, however, as preoccupation with salvation, confession, and austerity all appear. Many of his paintings show symbols, like skulls, in threes. The number three is a sacred number to Catholics who embrace the holy trinity.
Three has a religious connotation, but it also has personal importance to David. Somewhat ironically, the impetus for his most creative period was death. Not his own of course, but the death of three of his close friends and his divorce. Through painting David has found a way to explore his own notions of mortality as well as his grief.
David’s calling became clear to him when one of his teachers showed him Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Like Bosch in his time, David has found a modern approach to questions of faith and the transient quality of life. While he is not threatened with excommunication, David is working against other obstacles. He’s been plopped into a period where secularization and apathy limit people’s receptiveness to the themes he paints. While zombies and vampires run wild in our imaginations, the grim facts of death make people uncomfortable (especially those who no longer have faith in an afterlife to fall back on). Natural processes like grieving are confined for the most part to private spaces. Finally, even though he works in a surrealist style, which is popular right now, his work is deep. By rejecting the dada approach of anything goes in favor of definite symbols and metaphors, David is working against the grain of more commercially successful artists.
Each of David’s oil paintings tell a story. Legend (above) is about the way salvation-based faiths including Catholicism compel believers to live their lives in debt to death. What is prayer and ritual if not an insurance policy for the afterlife? The skeleton kneels in a barren field against a menacing, unworldly sky. His life is over, and there’s nothing left. This is one of the most beautiful and honest paintings I’ve ever seen.
We were talking about my asylum fixation, and David mentioned that he actually taught art therapy to mental patients in a historical asylum in Great Britain a couple of years before it was closed down. He said it was a very strange experience because some of the patients, though disturbed, had genius tendencies.
The painting above, Ghosts of Memories Decay, depicts a woman with a tree form splitting her head open. In the process of turning, there’s something slippery about her. The woman’s skin is mottled, imperfect. You can see the veins in her breast. This is in contrast to all the portraits of women frozen as ideals of beauty. It signifies the flawed nature of memory. The portrait is a personification of memory, especially memory of those whose time on earth has passed. When a person you know dies, all that you can hold onto of them is your memories. But memory is not a constant or absolute thing. It’s organic. It changes and fades and goes off on its own tangents. It can even deceive. People often lament that as the years pass, they forget their absent loved ones’ faces. The face of the woman in the painting has gone green, her eyes displaced by the veiny tree.
The painting above, Is There Life After Death? answers the question by positing that death is the opposite of reincarnation. The skulls unfold to reveal another skull. Death is infinite. Skulls are a very popular motif in contemporary art, and one of my favorites. What’s different about David’s skulls, is that he concentrates on giving each skull character through its expressions. The skulls are asymmetrical. They each have their own dimples and personality. David sees skulls as an icon that expresses a facet of the spiritual self. They are a container for ghosts and another thing we all have in common.
Sci-Fly Paper has a levity that David’s other works don’t. This painting is a dialogue about religion and science. David quipped that he’s seen photos of UFOS, but never a photo of god. He enjoys science fiction and wanted to explore the idea of a holy scroll surrounded by UFOs.
There’s a sexiness to David’s paintings that I find hard to reconcile with the deeper meanings. Maybe my intellectual side has been seduced by the promise of interpreting the symbolism. David’s work will be on display at the Hive in Los Angeles through October 30. He also has work on display at the Alternative Cafe in Seaside, Cailfornia (Monterey Bay) through November 9. To see more of David’s work, visit his website. He also has a book available through Blurb, entitled Gods and Monsters. The book is a retrospective of his work over the last five years, and shows many of his fantastical monsters. Thank you to David, and his beautiful wife Lani for spending so much time talking to me.