Born in Ireland, raised in Liverpool and now toiling as an artist in San Diego, California, painter David Van Gough knows a thing or two about being an outsider. His new series “Purgatorium,” which has its artist’s reception September 6 at Bash Contemporary in San Francisco, explores the theme of exile that has plagued David since birth. The series unearths the tumultuous relationship David has with his very identity and place in the world with pathos and a razor sharp wit.
Each of the twelve major oil paintings in Purgatorium spills over with symbolism, allegory and personal references. Luckily David is happy to take the time to decode his work.
Where does the name of the show, Purgatorium, come from? Who is in Purgatory?
It’s a derivative -the result of combining Purgatory and auditorium as a kind of Latin adjunctive. Combining them in that way presents the notion of artistic catharsis as a kind of sport-feeding one’s own heretics to the lions so to speak, and after doing a series about death (The Theothanatos series) I wanted to tackle life. I was never wholly convinced by the idea that Purgatory represented a no mans land between death and deliverance you see, rather it seemed that mere life itself truly embodied that state, the space between birth and dying. the realization of that, how one fills that space then becomes a quest for purpose, so in that sense we are all incarcerated in Purgatory, we’re all just stuck here. of course, since my immediate point of reference is as a creative entity , It struck me that the artist is forever in a transition state too, merely waiting for something to happen, but filling space nevertheless with a tangible search for purpose and objectives.
Why create a show about such personal subject matter? Does it put added pressure on you or is it more freeing to work from your own experiences?
Because I have no other context for working. All the work I do begins and ends in a personal stratosphere and its the only recourse I have over what is happening internally and externally. Look, I wish I could just mindlessly dance all over the canvas, how liberating that would be. Do you know, I once had a curator tell me, that my work was too personal like it was a debilitating factor. It struck me as ironic that the kind of abstract art he was selling expressed all the posturing of expressing something emotive, without actually relating any feeling at all.It was a real epiphany for me.
Each of the paintings in this series has a quotation from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, as its title. The Tempest is not generally considered one of Shakespeare’s major works. Why use it as central reference material? What is its personal significance?
Regardless of its standing, of all of Shakespeare’s works, The Tempest has always been my favorite- if I’m honest, it was Derek Jarmans adaptation of it which I first saw in the 1980’s that caught my interest-it was kind of like a Dorothea Tanning painting with punks. I didn’t really immerse myself into the text until later, because to a layman, reading Shakespeare is not as intuitive as watching Shakespeare, but it was the central idea of the magician-Prospero-true successor to the throne of Milan, exiled on an island, with his grimoires and spells-that idea became the central tenet for the series, the isolated and forgotten alchemist.
Contemporary audiences are much more familiar with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Are you at all concerned that the current audience might not know The Tempest? Can a person who has never read or seen the play still understand your series?
Since the show isn’t a note for note adaptation of the Tempest, I’m not concerned at all. I use the play as a reference point yes, an axis through which pulls the threads of personal account together,but the quotes don’t represent whats happening verbatim in the story, the characters are represented, but in amongst the detritus is a host of other references from the likes Blake, Bukowski, Burroughs, Bowie-that’s a lot of B’s actually-but there’s a lot more, a lifetime of influences and characterizations. I suppose it’s a kind of subterfuge to invest ones emotions and feelings in other works, easier to recast life as a fictionalized account with other players.
In paintings such as What’s Past is Prologue and Night Kept Chained Below, Purgatorium explores the theme of the starving artist. How does society’s ideal that an artist must suffer for his art handicap him?
It’s a media construct that has become a kind of boorish stereotyping , a quintessential road to Damascus. It’s like an insatiable need to qualify the art on the basis of the artists demeanor. And of course, the more fucked up and traumatic the suffering, the more validated and viable the art as a commodity, regardless of ability or aesthetic. So you get someone like Tracy Emin turning up wasted on a sniffy BBC talk show, and that becomes a career making turn. There’s something insidious in those prerequisites too–the notion of some honor in the garret, and I’m sure some cunt somewhere will say something about there being honor in trying to pull oneself up from the bootstraps, but if they walked a mile in those same shoes, they’d also baulk at seeing a dead painters work going for a record breaking sale at Christies, before it ends up on the wall of an Aristocrats country estate. That’s why I painted the artist as cockroach filling in the details in ‘Night kept chained Below’, because ultimately to play the role of idiot savant means still having to live life as an insect.One can trace the blame right at the door of dear old Vincent, which is unfair except when you understand that his poverty was purely arbitrary, the method to his madness, was actually a method and no different than someone like David Choe doing webcasts from a third world hole.
Van Gogh’s presence in this series is pervasive. Is this series more of an homage or a criticism and are you actually related to him?
It started out as a criticism, I’m not related remotely as far as I know, but it was like fuck you Van Gogh, we share the same name, but I’m not going to end up broke, batshit with syphilis, toothless and eating oil paint. Actually, I wish someone would make that movie. The one with Tim Roth got close, but I saw one were they had fucking Benedict Cumberbatch play him recently which just adds to the problem. Anyway, the whole Van Gogh name share thing has been like a proverbial thorn, its dogged me beyond the studio, beyond -I daresay-any potential legacy, so all of that certainly played into my decision to include him as pariah. But then I was reading his letters to Theo and his earnestness struck me that his personification would have been profoundly abhorrent to his sensibilities, because ultimately, he was deeply appalled and ashamed of his heritage. That’s why (in So Lie there my Art) I painted the diminutive dying Vincent beneath the feet of his eventual incarnation -its Van Gogh as the contemporary art messiah.
The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel, asserts that artists are more prone to depression because of their drive to create a lasting legacy in the brief time that they are alive. Do you agree?
I don’t know about Maisel, but why should any artist care about legacy, it’s beyond our control and will happen or not, regardless? The notion that anything we do could remotely usurp what has gone before even as a footnote is laughable frankly. I do see the down as an inevitable part of the process, the depletion of the bodies chemistry you get from the rush of creativity, the inactivity post show is such a buzz kill and of course you get depressed. Look, you spend so many months in vigil as some kind of self appointed prophet pooling yourself into something, and its like your birthing something innate, you are like a magician, a God manifesting your dreams which reflect your interior world, are a tangible spiritual reflection of who you are. and that becomes an aspiration, you’ve touched the pantheon, you’ve unraveled some arcane secret aspect, and you feel connected to the epicenter of some ancient knowledge. And then of course its born and its out there, and then what-you’re lucky if someone gives a shit. Suddenly your broke and have to go back to your shitty day job for ten bucks an hour or whatever again and you’re no longer a god and you’re wondering what it was all for. That’s not depression, that’s reality Jack.
One of your previous series of paintings, TheoThanatos, explored how you dealt with the death of three very close friends. Is Purgatorium more about your own mortality? Have you reached any epiphanies about that mortality through the work?
Its more about being mortal than dealing with it. You know, its all a search for some kind of formalism, an order if you will–it’s gilding the lily, a very fucked up, intangible, Lilly, but dressing for it all the same. The whys and the wherefores seem to matter less as I get older, just the aspect of how I invest my time. I don’t know-is a fifteen hour day kneeling at the altar of ones easel a good way to pass the time I have left?
Each of the paintings is composed around an X. What does the X represent and when did you decide to stage the paintings that way?
The X is like a multi purpose symbol. It’s a religious cross, except turned in that manner, it has a negative connotation. Stacked it is a double helix. It’s the earths axis and the number ten. It’s also a kiss or a crossroads. It has a multitude of interpretations for each piece and that was why it became the foundation for the series.
Every painting in the series depicts an animal or multiple animals in the scene. Can you discuss that choice and perhaps describe what some of those animals represent?
Because there were twelve paintings in all in the series, I had initially, every intention of integrating a zodiacal element as yet another layer. The pretext to the series was acknowledging art as a mercurial alchemy, so it followed that a cosmic conflux would hold its sway. Except setting a remit like that is impossible once you start. It’s like, where do I introduce Taurus in this scene? Far better just to draw on those extras if they’re needed. So, in something like ‘Poor worm, thou art infected’ the ram clearly acknowledges my birth sign of Aries, whereas in something like ‘good wombs have bore bad sons’ the lobster is a trifecta of interpretation as the Latin for poverty, the Tarot symbol for regeneration and of course the whole Dalinian connection.
How did your Catholic upbringing shape the series? Some of the images are incredibly blasphemous, do you have any lingering guilt about those depictions?
They are? I imagined we had surpassed that whole art as blasphemy schtick long ago. I don’t know that I harbor guilt so much as discomfort. This is not an easy series to digest. Conceiving it was less so. Poor Worm was mothballed twice, purely on the basis that it was too manifestly grotesque for me to stomach painting.
You were interviewed for the recently released documentary Serial Killer Culture by John Borowski because of your series exploring Charles Manson and sinister architecture. Has your work on those themes found its way into Purgatorium?
For certain-Sharon Tates likeness is actually the first character you see in the showcase (Good Wombs) although she is immersed in the psychoplasm of her time, and regardless of the fact that I began the series before I conceived the Man/son show, I would acknowledge absolutely that the seeds sown by it sent me on my current furrow. Something like ‘The Dark and Backward abysm of time’ wouldn’t have the same dark undercurrent of Masonic lore running through it , and in fact the whole series reverberates with the notion that there is a rich, arcane symbolic language influencing the dictum’s of contemporary society,
How was your creative process in making the work different from past series and why?
I had several remits with Purgatorium, firstly I wanted to make a cohesive chronology, by that I mean that often the structure of a series doesn’t present itself until midway through or after the fact-it kind of evolves as a progression. With this series, each piece, because of its relation to my own history, had a fixed point of reference-although it jumps about a bit much in the same way as memory-there was less reliance on accident and experimentation and so I had twelve very precise sketched compositions before I began painting.
Secondly,I think its much lighter, I avoided using black, and other than one of the pieces, everything is outside and taking place concurrently, either at dusk or dawn-depending on your preference. it still has a sense of claustrophobia in it, but its through a calculated retreat from minimalism. I wanted the show to be more pictorial than representative-have the feel of kind of modern Codex Gigus, so there was no photo reference at all-When I needed to draw from life,to capture a certain likeness such as Blake or my Grandson (the fawn in Misery acquaints man with strange bedfellows) I would study a photograph and then put it way, letting the memory percolate in my mind before I recomposed it. Photography is a wonderful tool, but it can also become a crutch making the work static, there’s a dynamic with the imagination that one cannot capture with Photoshop montages, and so I wanted to be wholly reliant on my internal geography. The other thing was that I didn’t censor myself, I kept the audience out of the studio.
What do you most hope viewers take away from the series?
That art doesn’t have to be a sort of static ambiance, it can also be a rich source of magic.
“Purgatorium” opens on September 5 and runs through October 4 at Bash Contemporary in San Francisco. The artist reception is September 6th at 6pm, with David in attendance. Bash Contemporary is also open during the First Thursday Upper Polk-Tenderloin Art Walk, September 5, and “Purgatoruim” will be on exhibition. For more information, to see previews of the show or to buy, visit Bash Contemporary’s website or David Van Gough’s website. Thank you very much to David for the insight into this masterful and unique series.