Never has death appeared more alive than when gazing at the works of David Van Gough. He is a necrosurrealist artist whose pieces explore themes of decay, esotericism, religion, the shadow self and mortality. His paintings lay bare the morbid terrain he treads as he creates, beckoning the onlooker to join him.
Van Gough became fascinated with art during his childhood in Liverpool, England. He now resides in Southern California where he paints full time. He’s produced several collections of work over the past 20 years, each delving into a particular aspect of the human condition. He garnered much attention when he released the set “Man/Son and the Haunting of the American Madonna” in 2012 at Hyaena Gallery, which was inspired by the occult, the Manson Family murders and the idolization of Sharon Tate.
His upcoming exhibit, “Infernal-The Denouement,” will plunge spectators into the depths of hell. It is the final part of a compelling series he initiated in 2014 with “Purgatorium,” followed by “Paradiso’s Fall” in 2019.
In the following interview, David Van Gough opens up about the circumstances that have influenced his art and shares details about his new collection, which is slated to debut this month at The Dark Art Emporium.
Q: You have ingenious ways of rendering horror and the occult in your illustrations. When you started painting, how did you know it was the darker aspects of existence that you wanted to depict? What do you find most fulfilling about creating dark art?
A: It was revealed to me when I was around thirteen, I believe. One day at school, I was in art class, drawing something I shouldn’t, and when my teacher saw what I was scrawling—instead of reprimanding me, presented me with a picture of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It was in black and white, but nevertheless, it colored my entire universe.
For me, dark art is just shadow work, stirring the murky depths of the subconscious and discovering fragmented aspects of self. It’s giving voice to something lurking under the surface. A salination for the soul.
Q: You identify as a necrosurrealist artist and death is a central theme in much of your artwork. Has your view of or ruminations on death transformed in any way as you’ve progressed on your artistic path?
A: Back when I started this odyssey over a decade ago, I was still coming to terms with the passing of three very close friends—mentors even— who had passed over a fifteen-year period at five-year increments. I dealt with it as I do with most challenges, I painted it out, made a mojo of it— a talisman, so to imbue it with all my internal turbulence, extricate the pain as a way of disassociating from it.
And then, during the last series, “Paradiso’s Fall,” I was asked a similar question about a self-portrait I’d titled “That Which is Dark, Illuminate” in which I push a skull mask to one side, and I said something along the lines that now that I was older, I could similarly put death to one side, be far more interested in the business of life, and living.
Then of course, Covid happened, during which my father succumbed on Christmas Eve, which was utterly devastating and so perversely contrary of his character in a way, because of course, it is a time associated with the nativity.
The summer before, I had been dealing with my own health issues, which required a biopsy and surgery, so it suffused my so called “denouement” with a very real sense that the series might indeed be my last. Thankfully, my results came back all clear, but that, plus my father really brought home my mortality, that this dance with death shan’t be done until I am.
Q: If I’m not mistaken, you were inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and John Milton’s Paradise Lost when you set out to work on “Purgatorium” and “Paradiso’s Fall.” For “Infernal-The Denouement,” you draw from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. What made you choose the latter literary works as the influences for this final set. Do you often find creative inspiration in literature?
A: I almost certainly believe that had I not been a painter, then I would have been a writer of some form or other. I have always loved literature, and for me growing up in this very Catholic, provincial working-class world, books were some sort of gateway to this other interior world—the imagination.
All the works I’ve used are narrative set pieces, and the reason I was drawn to those particular works was because they are so rich for interpretation. Except, I didn’t want to do straight retelling of the pieces. Certainly, you can’t surpass Gustave Dore’s gorgeous illustrations for The Divine Comedy. Rather, I wanted to use passages as jumping off points—titles, to illustrate my own interior world.
With the Tempest for instance, I was drawn to it initially because I really felt a kinship with the magician Prospero, exiled on an island. I felt analogous to my situation, at that time as an artist, in every way comparable to his—isolated, excluded and misunderstood with his muse and his alchemy.
The Wasteland I was drawn to because it’s narrative form is so fragmentary and oblique, but also because, again, I felt some sort of kinship with the author. It’s a work that has such a rich tapestry of interpretation and reference, and then of course I discovered that when he wrote it, Eliot had been convalescing near Lake Geneva, after a bout of Spanish Flu, so the series became very prescient.
Q: How does it feel now that this series you started several years ago is coming to an end with “Infernal-The Denouement?” Is there a sense of closure or fulfillment?
A: I’m still too close to the source to feel closure, but there is a sense of achievement—dare I say, vindication—that doesn’t feel quite the folly it seemed to be, when I was first staring down the barrel all those years ago.
Q:When you were a guest on Chet Zar’s Dark Art Society podcast, you talked about how you almost quit doing art entirely. I’m grateful you didn’t because the art world would have lost a great talent. What motivates you to continue painting?
A: It’s a line I’ve walked for years I think, the sense that the time utilized in service of your vision is time that might be better focused elsewhere. Certainly, when you sign up to dedicate yourself to mapping the interior world, there are moments of great hardship, penury, isolation, possible rejection. It’s almost canonry, grazing your knees before an altar of your own making, in the hope and faith of some divine redemption.
Except, conversely, I wouldn’t want to do anything else, because when you start on this journey—and it is a spiritual one—you are opening yourself to a wellspring of possibility, a manifest creative outlook that enriches and colors everything. A legacy and a secret language, as well as a set of friends and fellow journeyman, that would be otherwise unattainable.
Q: What do you have planned in regard to future artwork and creative projects?
A: The plan always with the three series was to combine them together in the form of some coffee table book, with my ruminations and sketches, so I’ll be working on that.
Also, having gone through my Dad’s stuff after he passed, I discovered all of the poems that he’d written throughout his life, on scraps of envelopes and things. Sadly, he remained unpublished, but had always said he wanted to collate them in a book, and have me illustrate them, so I’m going to do exactly that, and self-publish in his memory.
More immediately, there is an exciting collaboration with another artist, whose work is somewhat diametric to my own, in that she is more mainstream, but her work is esoterically potent and having gone through her own health issues, we’re wanting to commemorate our shared survival. She is quite an extraordinary painter, so I really have my homework to do.
David Van Gough’s “Infernal-The Denouement” exhibition opens at The Dark Art Emporium in Long Beach, California, on August 14th from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
To learn more and to support the artist, follow the links below.