David Gough painting

Necrosurrealist oil painter David Gough brutally dredges up the toxic and detestable aspects of humanity in his work.

With the pandemic violently forcing many people to confront longstanding mass delusions, David’s work takes on new meaning. His allegorical compositions serve as a lens through which the viewer can consider failings both moral and mortal.

I’ve known David about ten years. We have similarly tortuous mindsets: constantly hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. We each cope with bleak spells both real and self-conjured by retreating into mental forts we fill with fantasy, studies of chilling psychopaths and pop culture labyrinths.

I spoke to David hoping to sort out the dueling impulses between using this time to analyze and reflect, and running from this time by diving down a fanciful rabbit hole of distraction.

You live in a less populated area of California, how has your daily life changed since the spread of Covid-19?

Day to day, I wouldn’t say the ritual of daily life has changed that dramatically. Just by virtue of the nature of what artists do, it’s quite solitary anyway, and because I live in a fairly isolated locale, it can feel akin to being on a remote island , so sometimes I’ll go weeks without seeing a soul other than my wife, my dog and my cat.

Of course, my sense of what’s going on in the world changes the moment I login to the outside world, or the few times I’ve needed to make a trek down the hill for groceries. That has been jarring – seeing the roads barren, people in masks and the aisles ransacked – you feel this pall of terrible, subdued tension over everything. Like wandering into a familiar territory where everything is about to irrevocably change.

Has your creative process been affected during this time? Are you making art? If you are making art, what have you been working on?

I think like everyone, for the first few weeks, it was difficult to orient myself to the enormity of the pandemic and what the implications were for humanity.

I went into the whole fight or flight thing, and so the immediate weight of responsibility shifted, as if the relevance of what I was doing seemed diminished – even frivolous. It was this weird paralysis of thinking “what’s the point – it’s puerile. How does this affect anything?”.

The thing was that I was already immersed in my next series – “Infernal the denouement”, which is the third in a trinity of works which began in 2014 (Purgatorium and Paradiso’s Fall 2019), and because it’s my incarnation of hell on earth – an end no less, it felt as if the version I’d been working on was a sudden manifestation of what was happening, so it’s become this painting for posterity thing.

Misery Acquaints Man with Strange Bedfellows by David Gough from his show Purgatorium, 2014

If you are doing creative work, has the tone of your work shifted?

I saw an article from a historian imploring people to journal during this time, so I’m aware it’s possibly become more of a chronicle for future dissemination.

Do you feel freer or more restricted in any way and why?

Oddly enough, I feel liberated by it. I think because it’s a situation very much informed by our mortality, there’s a sense of vitality and urgency returned to everything.

There’s this thing Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) said in his final interview, when he was already riddled with cancer and it’s that “life can only be defined in the present tense, it is – IS, and it is now” that things appear “More trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were” and so it’s concentrated the focus of something that was as menial as a brush stroke, into something that’s also extraordinary, purely because time feels more acutely borrowed than usual.

What role (if any) does art and the artist have at a time of crisis?

I can only speak of my own remit and hopes for what role it can take, but If we survive the years ahead, at the very least the best legacy we could look forward to may be the flourishing of art that reflects the period we live in.

I’m thinking of what people like Munch and Schiele were doing during the last great Pandemic – the Spanish Flu, and of course both Schiele and his wife sadly succumbed to that. So, I’m hoping perhaps we will see work with the same emotional weight as that – or Goya’s Disasters of War series, or the work of Otto Dix, Peter Howson – art of that resonance.

We live in fertile times for works of such scope, but then artists are also just people, and people will deal with this in the color and hue that they feel appropriate, so it’s also fine if it brings about art that is antidote rather than anecdote.

Your outstanding most recent solo gallery show, Paradiso’s Fall, at The Dark Art Emporium in Long Beach California, addressed man’s self destructive tendencies and played with end of days iconography. Was the show prophetic or have things gotten even more grim than you anticipated? Has your understanding of this series shifted at all in recent days or have you moved on?

I’d been reading about Durkheims Anomie, the theory of a society that seems intent on suiciding itself, and it struck me that it comes from this innate, righteous need to stand on the precipice, and watch the world burn. Become the smiting hand of God, almost.

People have told me in retrospect that the last series seems prescient. Recently I even had a very dear friend charitably refer to me as a conduit.

I guess I see myself as more of an anthropologist than an artist, so it’s possibly just that thing Schlegel said about Historians being prophets looking backwards.

Is it more grim? I suppose not when you compare it with the world of around a century ago-the Spanish Flu, WWI – but I think the weight of it all hinges on this overriding sense of disappointment. The notion that this 21st Century offered some illusory promise, that somehow the technological advances would equate to humanity somehow having evolved along with them. That the chance to connect and access all the knowledge of the world at your fingertips, would advance us as a species, when all it seems to have actually done is provide more tools by which mankind can indulge and weaponize its very worst predilections. What Flaubert once referred to as the ‘true immorality’-wilful ignorance and stupidity.

The Death Eaters by David Gough from his show Paradiso’s Fall, 2019

Your work is rife with apocalyptic imagery and decomposing beings, If you had to pick one of your paintings to illustrate this moment in time, what would it be?

I’d have to say “The Death Eaters” feels particularly pertinent right now. The puritanical settlers huddled together, devouring a monstrous fly. It’s the microcosm as the macrocosm of you are what you eat.

Origins of a Black Hole by David Gough from his show Paradiso’s Fall, 2019

While many of your works are extremely personal, you have drawn from current events in paintings such as Origins of a Black Hole. But your commentary is typically veiled in symbolism. How are you approaching the current situation in art that you are working on now if at all?

The geography of the new series is much more urban than the last one. More specifically it’s the city scape of my upbringing – Liverpool in the 70’s and early 80’s. There’s a photographer I really like called Dave Sinclair, who had taken these remarkable photos which portrayed the dereliction and decay of the city during the period. In amongst that, were these little grubby street urchins playing among the rubble, and it reminded me of myself not just when I was a kid there, but how that has developed into a sort of internal playground for my psyche, sifting through the chaos and detritus and discovering discarded artifacts.

And so there’s a whole play on the word Infernal as internal, of a physical body disintegrating, grasping for some last semblance of life-which has almost certainly become reflection of the world stage.

Are there any supplies or tools that you rely on or would like to have but are currently struggling to get?

I immediately thought of Bog roll (toilet paper). I was actually thinking about why that became the big hot ticket item during the pandemic, and I realized that it stems from the psychological impulse for sanitation – to literally wipe away the unclean. Ironic when you think of someone like Dali, who likened shit to gold, which of course is just alchemy.

In terms of art materials, I can almost order anything online, but I insist on buying brushes in person so I can inspect the bristles, so that’s been a bit of a challenge.

Have you explored any techniques or mediums during this time that are new to you?

The work has gotten looser through the sense of urgency I’d say, less finessed.

And because I’ve been rationing brushes, I’ve been using other materials to make textures, cloth, wrinkled paper, plastic bags, allowing the marks, smears and drips to become more integrated as part of the process.

So, whereas before I might have worried over every inch of the canvas, it’s been more freeing, which is possibly just me exercising some resistance to the housebound restriction on a subconscious level.

What kind of art have you been consuming and why? Is this different than what you typically consume?

I guess like most people, there’s been a certain amount of need for the familiar – something that represents comfort food for the soul. For me, it’s been a dip back into things that affected me as a kid – tv shows like Children of the Stones, or the Man, Myth and Magic volumes.

Before this started, I’d been reading Gordon Burns Happy Like Murderers, about the horrors of 25 Cromwell Street- which due to the horror of those killings is at times both disturbing and utterly repellent. So, not light reading by any means really.

I was wanting to explore the nature of primal evil, how this abject netherworld on the edge of society, represented and even in someways gave license to a poverty of the soul. With the economy teetering on a global recession, vast communities retreating into themselves, one can’t help but wonder how many little Fred and Rose West’s there are in the making.

Divine and The Divined by David Gough, 2018

How is your mental health? I’ve seen you consumed by a series you’re working on in the best of times. How are you coping with everything that’s happening now?

I go through waves of buoyancy to feelings of total hopelessness.

I think the latter isn’t helped by the daily news briefings from Capitol Hill quite honestly, but I’ve tried where I can to circumvent any anger or anxiety I feel about that whole situation. Try to focus on the things I have control over – the work, my relationships.

It’s tough when something so critical as keeping appraised of the news, feels like an assault on the senses, exacerbated by one man’s dysfunction of petty grievances and incompetence.

Did you have any planned showcases that have been postponed or cancelled? Or were there any shows that you were looking forward to attending?

Just a couple of group show things, which are delayed until further notice, but my focus has largely been towards next year, March 2021 which when Infernal is due to open at Dark Art Emporium, but we shall see.

Has your financial situation been affected by the spread of Covid-19?

There’s definitely been a shortfall in orders, particularly given that usually around tax time, it’s the reverse because people have a little more disposable income to play with. Everyone is feeling the crunch though, so I’ve been extra appreciative of any support I’ve had, doing timelapses of any custom sketches to keep people engaged.

You are running an End of Days Sale on your website http://davidgoughart.com/. How are people responding to it? Do you feel that the End of Days title is humorous or do you fear we really might be there?

I wrestled with even doing a sale to be honest – I worried it would be crass, given everything happening with millions suddenly laid off and a surfeit of medical masks and such.

Then someone said that my work helped them make sense of these dark times, that art was like an antidote and so I thought why get in the way of that, why not make it easier and more affordable for people to purchase, help them fill the time with something they can relate to, particularly my art books and graphic novel, so it’s 35% off everything for the duration.

Calling it End of Days was just gallows humor-that thing we Brits like to do in a crisis along with putting the kettle on.

What else can we do to support your work at this time?

Follows and shares are always appreciated , davidvangough at Facebook or Instagram – token sales from my website: davidgoughart.com are like a manna from Hades.

Thank you so much to David for his thoughtful responses. I am looking forward to seeing his solo art show, Infernal, next spring at the Dark Art Emporium in Long Beach.

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