Pulled from the white

Joan Sullivan
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Mike Gough’s latest exhibit offers ‘postcards’ of places visited, times inhabited

Mike Gough’s art articulates a language all its own. Arrayed with notations, the diverse media (paint, graphite, pastel) hum with drippings, scribblings and iterations.
Simple outlines indicate both presence and absence. Different areas are formed from erasure and overlays. Figurative sketches are offset by calligraphic text. The works have dimension, and energy, with a sense of horizon.

Mike Gough’s “Room I,” acrylic, pastel and graphite on panel, 36” x 36”. — Submitted image

There is often a signature or dominant colour — red, blue, purple — in pools or clustered swirls.

It all blends into into a spare harmonic oscillation of representation and implication, where things are realized and others have faded away.

“Surfacing” is Gough’s third solo exhibition, and includes 23 mixed-media works, all 2013. Most are on canvas, but a half dozen are on paper.

“It was interesting going back and forth between the surfaces,” Gough said. “Seeing how the surfaces accepts things or rejects it. Paper just soaks it in.”

Gough usually works fairly large (“I don’t like working small, it’s too limited”) but these are his biggest pieces yet, and he fully explores the freedom and opportunity provided.

His influences include Cy Twombley, of course, whose romantic symbolism often fused the lines between painting and drawing.

But, surprisingly, Gough also looks to figures like French photographer Sophie Calle and English conceptual artist Gillian Wearing, because their work in structured with autobiographical components, building into a connective bridge to their audience.

Such relationships are integral to Gough’s process, right from the start.

“More often than not I begin with the drawing, and making that initial mark or line or paint stroke starts a relationship. The act of drawing is intimate in itself.”

Back to the visual and textual inscriptions of Gough’s work: in a way, they are a kind of postcard, not just from a place visited, but a time inhabited. This series is based purely on memory, documenting places and events from his past. Although he references photographs, he sticks close to pure recall, “just to test” himself. What comes back to him, and what escapes his grasp?

For a couple of years, as he was doing some travelling, he was captivated by all the beds he slept in in hotels and hostels.

He would photograph them, and later incorporate the shapes (at least one can be found in this new series).

“And then I was fascinated with the places I was staying in, friend’s houses, and their cabins. The idea of the space holding a history, how a place can hold these memories.”

He starts with those shapes, bringing colour in a little later.

The tones are associated with whatever subject Gough is remembering, as the images of objects and interiors and cityscapes and people emerge from out of the white.

He works the whole canvas, making big gestures, and “there are moments I home in,” focusing in spots within the overall freer, wilder arenas. In the end he leaves a daring amount of white space.

“I always ask, ‘does it need more? How does it balance?’ With this series it just happened, I would leave and just know it was done. It was great because it is always such a struggle to have the right amount of breathing room.”

As he paints, and primes over, and paints again, “ghosts come through as previous layers.”

As such, any piece is embedded with a compressed and possibly interrupted timeline.

Gough’s piece “Room #1,” for example, began when he first started the series and he came back to it near the end.

“The image of the bed got the ball rolling. That combined with the image of a person. Then these marks focused on smaller areas; I tried to leave the scribbling behind this time, but I found it was almost automatic writing. It begins as a language but becomes markmaking.”

The colour seeped through after a recent visit to Fogo.

“I was never influenced by landscape before, but from that relationship of space, and the water there, the colour blue started emerging.”

The imagery remains invitingly open-ended.

“Even though I’m working on an experience close to me, I love that people experience something on their own. It’s not only specific to me, it’s not only ‘what does this mean to the artist?’”

Viewers bring their own interpretation, their own journeys, to the works.  It is a generosity and lack of restriction that Gough cultivates from the inception of each piece.

“It’s like the paintings are already there and I’m pulling them out of the white.

“And the ghosts are coming through. Because whether a mark or line was a mistake and it is now partly covered over, it still has a role in the painting. It’s important to show the painting has a history, and was something before.”

“Surfacing” continues at the Christina Parker Gallery until Sept. 28.



Geographic location: Fogo

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