Mike Gough, currently represented by the Christina Parker Gallery, is not yet thirty but is already one of the province’s most spoken-of and distinct visual artists. One look at his work and you know who painted it. One look at his work and your home suddenly feels incomplete. It’s clean, catching work, with plenty of conceptual context. In other words, his work is eye candy with brains.
Shortly after graduating from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in England, with a Masters of Fine Arts, he was invited to exhibit with Witham Gallery in London for an exhibition featuring ten emerging artists from the top graduate schools in the UK. Since that time, his work has appeared in group and solo exhibitions in Canada, the UK and France. Gough was shortlisted for the Excellence in Visual Arts (EVA) Emerging Artist of the Year Award in 2012 and the NLAC Emerging Artist of the Year in 2013. His latest exhibit is the stunning public gallery solo exhibition, Retrace, currently on display at The Rooms is St. John’s. His exhibit was part of the Elbow Room Residency Program.
How was your experience with the Elbow Room Studio Residency, and how much of this exhibit was created in those three months?
The residency was really incredible. Having the opportunity to work in a large studio made a huge impact on the work I made. There was a sense of freedom that came along with it, as if there were no limits on what I could make. I think it’s so wonderful that The Rooms has a program like this in place that’s geared towards emerging artists. There are a lot of young artists in the community and many of them are paving their own way and creating opportunities for themselves, but it’s encouraging to see programs, like the Elbow Room Residency, being offered on that level. Aside from the studio space, the public gallery solo exhibition is such a privilege for a young artist.
Everything that you see in the exhibition was made during the residency. What I found most challenging was working during the day. Access to the studio is limited to The Rooms open hours. As a night painter I had to really shift my way of working. Mirielle Eagan, the curator, selected what work would be shown and the installation of the paintings. She is a brilliant curator and a huge asset to the gallery. She was an incredible support during the residency and really understood the work I was making. She shared important insights and critiques that really made me push myself.
For those who know nothing of this exhibit, is it safe to say Retrace is largely about what we CAN’T remember? About how, over time, sounds go muddy, and rooms get blurry, and people’s faces distort? Is that what you’re trying to capture here: what’s missing from the act of remembering? Or is it more about the significance of isolated objects and moments in our personal histories?
Well when I first began the work I thought it was about the act of remembering, but that wasn’t entirely true. The very first piece in the show started with a few marks that eventually developed into a drawing of the area in London where I use to live. It was like a map, a memory map perhaps? Eventually I stopped. I couldn’t remember the building three spaces to the left. I couldn’t remember what colour it was, what colour my building was. What kind of fence surrounded the park down the street? What direction did the next street over take? I had lived there for a year and a half, but couldn’t remember some of the basic forms and colors of the area. It was a place I saw nearly every day, yet I couldn’t tell you what colors the building was. I began to identify these moments as areas of white. These gaps, the white spaces, are like a rolling fog that gently covers our experiences until we are left with fragments of memories. I felt as though the white space in my work was like a pool of water and I would try and bring to the surface what I could remember and hold on to. After I stopped mapping the area in London I sat, closed my eyes, and pretended to place myself back in that neighbourhood with the hope of remembering. Instead of recalling specifics, I began to feel something. I remembered what it felt like to live there and with that came waves of color and forms. I went back to the painting and began to map my experience in a new way using color and abstract mark marking. Sometimes I would layer a coat of white primer over the marks and they would appear as ghost images emerging from the white and relating to my experience of recalling.
I’ve always had a fear of losing my memory. When I was younger I remember visiting my Nan Nolan who, at the time, was developing Alzheimer’s. In the beginning she would forget ordinary things, but then, years later, she would forget most of her day and sometimes faces of loved ones. I’m sure most people have experienced something similar to this within a family. It is natural for things to fade to a degree as we grow older. I thought about these paintings in the future, forty years from now. If I were to see one of these works would I remember what it was about? Would I feel the same? Would I recognize I painted it? To battle this fear I relied on the titles to help me. My titles act as a conversation between myself and another self. They are guides and they are clues. I think about the work existing beyond its creation, sometimes beyond my own life. For example “You Will Return And Know The Place For The First Time,” “Trust In This To Guide You Home” and “Remember, You’re In Good Hands.”
Explain how these pieces also marry the process of creating with the act of remembering.
I’ve always thought of drawing as an intimate process. But what does that mean? Well I think the moment you connect the medium with the canvas, you begin a relationship. You start to create something. When people ask me about the intimacy of drawing I always recall an experience I had when I was living away. I was feeling a little lonely one evening and decided to draw. I was drawing a portrait of a best friend who I am really close with. After about thirty minutes something happened and the drawing began to look like her. I thought about how intimate an act it was tracing someone’s form and how close it made me feel to her as she stared back at me.
There is something really seductive about a painting where you can see evidence of the artist’s hand. Knowing how close someone was with a work gives it a deeper meaning for me.
From looking at the paintings, it almost feels like you’d look at a blank canvas, and your eyes would be projectors of memories made barren by time, and you’d pull what you were seeing up from the canvas. Was this somewhat the case? And how’d you know when to stop searching for more and call a piece done?
To some degree. Each piece is not a combination of memories. Instead it is a residue of one experience. My work has always been about “experience.” During my MFA my class was separated into areas of interest within our work. I was in the “experience” framework, which meant those in my group all made work about their life. They used their stories and experiences to inspire their work. What I really took from the class was an appreciation for one’s experience and how when we view work like that we can often see ourselves in it. It is a reflection of humanity and it involves a vital component of humanity; a need to connect.
It’s sometimes hard to know when a piece is done. There are times I’ll return to a work each day for a month. I feel it’s done when there’s nothing left to give and the composition is balanced.
Images in this post:
Top: “After All We Are A Product Of Time”
Bottom: “We Made This Our Home”