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arts and environment

The Recent Art of Mike Gough 

The Christina Parker Gallery
St. John’s NL

by Martin Poole

A figure of the St. John’s visual arts scene, visual artist Mike Gough has been making plenty headway for the past six years, and can be seen regularly both in person and in art at the Christina Parker Gallery. To date, Gough has exhibited in London, Harlow, Noyelle, Toronto, St. John’s, etc., and was a recipient to a number of awards and opportunities; notably, the Elbow Room residency for the Rooms —Newfoundland’s provincial art gallery. Recently, Gough’s work was selected by Christina Parker (among other artists) to be exhibited at Art Toronto, one of Canada’s prestigious contemporary art fairs.

At a glance, Gough’s work appears half-complete. At times, landscapes are fragmented by scribbles of color, and graphite outlines. On other pieces, the paint is applied carefully, and is geometrically structured. The overall subjects are more-or-less clear: a house on a hill, a boat in a pond, a figure looking on into the horizon….

Gough : Lessons in Remembering 7
Lessons in Remembering 7 :: Courtesy of the Artist

But a glance does not suffice. In this case there is much more to Gough’s series: Lessons in Remembering which the artist began in 2013 and completed in 2015, and To Guide You Home which began and finished within 2015.

Gough’s initial graphite drawings allow for unconscious expression. He sets the landscape for his deliberate painting (assuming that pencil comes before paint in his case).  Both of these actions to the canvas are symbolic in a practical sense, for they mimic the content of memory and how we interact with it. Our memories are mix of clarity and obscurity. We remember past moments by giving value to certain pieces while treating the rest as excess. But one could say that it is not so deliberate, and it will come as no surprise that perhaps our clearer memories are emotionally driven. That is, one is affected by an event to an extent that the memory is sharper, certain objects have more form than the rest. Therefore, a clear weather-torn shed (or house) beams out among garbled clouds. A worn path is cut through a blank landscape. Figures appear empty amid vibrant surroundings.

Gough : Lessons in Remembering 13
Lessons in Remembering 13 :: Courtesy of the Artist

The free-drawn elements also expose an intimacy between artist and canvas. An action telling of moments special to him that are not necessarily meant to be interpreted by others. This is an art that is personal while private. Truths told within secrecy.

Semblances of language appear within the painting; clouds as near-legible marks on the sky, and shrubs and grass directly on the landscape. Perhaps we are witnessing a confusion that comes from a desire to remember, and a quick burst of words stands in for the moment and things missed—the sky, the land, elements that he remembers were present, but cannot affix detail. In turn, Gough’s hand simultaneously writes and draws.

Of course, this may not be the case at all, rather I am simply taking part in the guesswork; the peephole that Gough’s work allows us.

Gough : To Guide You Home 5

To Guide You Home 5 :: Courtesy of the Artist

But then, how do we address the piece To Guide You Home 5 above? A single aberrant figure staring off into a simplified symmetrical order. The main subject could be either the figure, or the box, equally.

A common characteristic of Gough’s work are the specific moments in memory. Should we then consider the most prominent objects to be our guide for the overall subject of the painting, or are we supposed to look at what is missing? In this particular piece the ambiguity stems from the movement of the central figure which appears anxious. The image is pleasant to some, and perhaps distressing to others. How is the figure registering the red box? Can we assume that it is a house? And if so, what awaits the figure who is seemingly destined towards it? Although it is fair to say, I would be hard-pressed to call this particular work abstract, for we have a strong narration, albeit an unclear one (and there are possible exceptions of abstract works with a narration). As well, we cannot safely say that it is figurative, for—if only—the painting does not define the source of the painting. To me, it looks like the moment of decision. The clean horizon, a house nestled neatly into it, and appearing oddly inviting. The figure in the foreground is empty; lacking dimension until a decision is made.

A deliberation is necessary when considering these pieces, and when getting to know oneself. The viewer’s attempt to understand these works (if they are compelled to that is), forces them to rely on their own experiences. It is likely that the narration becomes a little of their own subjectivity, as these scenes, although specific to Gough, are generalized enough to provoke something selective within.

Gough : To Guide You Home 2
To Guide You Home 2 :: Courtesy of the Artist

In the above piece, To Guide You Home # 2, the background becomes the subject (if I can be permitted to confuse the subject as the clearest portion of the work, and if so, the white box becomes suspect!!). As with the previous piece, the same questions arise if one tries to build a narration. However, it seems that to suspend the desire for a traditional narrative is the best route. Whatever one can take away from these paintings it will be intertwined with pure aesthetics. Instead of a story we look on at the blend of color and composition, and the play between depiction and white space. In a sense then, a lack of narration doesn’t matter.

The figures are barely contained within an outline, and the object of their curiosity is negative space. We do not know these figures. We have no guide, no physicality, no gender, and no points of identification whatsoever. Yet, we are directed to their interest that is given to us by Gough’s subtle, and not-so-subtle depiction of their surroundings.

When encountering an unknown, one can easily talk indirectly about it without really understanding anything at all. Gough has given us an assertion, and we—in turn—offer our own. Despite the difficulty in getting deep into the story behind Gough’s recent works, his intention remains as clear as this work will allow. His execution remains refined and full of purpose, adding his own distinction to the artistic scene in St. John’s, Newfoundland. If I may be permitted to say, and perhaps out of personal interest, I would hope that for his next series that we see something completely new. If only to watch from afar a change in his artistic direction and to again watch another idea develop as convincingly as his work to date.   


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