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David Herrle interviews Susannah Martin, painter

I discovered the splendid work of Susannah Martin in Juxtapoz magazine (which recently named her one of the best artists of 2013) and was immediately drawn to her handling of nudes.  There was something different about them.  The subjects (male, female, adults, children) were liberated, apparently unposed, volitional.  As someone who’s a sucker for reclining nudes and Ingres-type dehanchement, I was pleasantly jarred – and became an instant fan.  No wonder the Huffington Post included Susannah’s Gorge in its 10 Memorable Paintings of 2013.  What follows is one of my favorite interviews with an artist.

David: You worked as a professional set and mural painter for almost 30 years.  The examples of your work are vivid and remarkable.  How did this career come about, and what kept you in it for so long?

SM:  Well, it was closer to 20 years but still, that is a very long time. My family was quite poor, with my father deceased and there being five children.  I began working after school I think at about the age of 10.  I worked throughout high school and college to make tuition.  Some jobs were of little importance but others brought me great practical experience: assisting artists, architects, restoring paintings, printing workshops, etc.  During my last year of study at New York University, where I was a fine-arts major, I began to work for Sandro La Ferla Backdrops Inc.  Sandro is from Torino, Italy and had made a name for himself in New York City as a set designer for the Opera. He is also an exceptional painter and enjoyed painting the backdrops himself, so he started a business painting backdrops and renting them out at a daily rate to photographers and film companies, primarily for advertising. There was a stock of over 400 backdrops, huge canvases, and he had a fine business going for many years until Photoshop came into being.  I learned about set-painting techniques by watching him.  In 1990 I went independent, painting backdrops and murals in New York and Germany. I kept doing it for so long because the money is fairly good and reliable but also because I loved it.  I am still completely fascinated by large-scale painting, but I became unhappy with never really being able to realize my ideas.  It is very rare that a mural client gives you complete freedom, and the set painting is often only used for a short time and then thrown away.  I reached a point where I had to do my own work again, for richer or poorer.


David: After being born and raised in New York City, your first major relocation was to Berlin, Germany, and you now live now live in Frankfurt am Main.  Why Germany?  Has your maturation in the metropolis of metropolises and your emigration to one of the largest European cities informed your attraction to and respect for the rural and nudism in art?

SM: I was born in New York City and returned for 10 years later, but I grew up in New Jersey, so I did have some experience with the rural environment.  My early experiences with nature as a child where very intense and personal, as they are for most children.  My happiest moments, in fact, were spent playing alone in a park near our house, on the beach or at the river bank.  There is a time in childhood when trees and plants and small animals feel like real friends.  I have to work harder to get to that place now, but it is still there.  I am happiest in nature. Why Germany? I first visited Europe when I was 14.  I knew immediately that I wanted to move to Europe as soon as I could find a way to do it.  Germany is the greatest cultural hub in Europe and the most interesting to me as far as the developments in the visual arts are concerned.  I wanted desperately to study in Düsseldorf with Gerhard Richter when he was professor there, but I couldn’t make it work financially.


David: Philip Pearlstein’s name comes to my mind instantly when considering your work, but I consider you anti-Pearlstein.  His somnolent nudes are placed in claustrophobic interior spaces; sometimes bodies overlap each other.  Your nudes aren’t listless or cloistered by walls.  They’re free to explore airy panoramas (and are a far cry from art tradition’s reclined and idle odalisques).  Yet, has Pearlstein’s work ever been a conscious factor in your work?  Please spiel about your favorite artists, confinement versus open air, and posed subjects versus active ones.

SM: I’m glad to hear that you feel I have moved far from the traditional odalisque.  That is very important to me. Philip Pearlstein certainly was an artist with whom I was familiar from an early age.  My mother is also a figurative painter, and I remember looking through reproductions of his work as a kid.  Pearlstein and the photorealists were heroes in a way when they started to show up on the art scene in the Seventies.  Well, they were heroes to all the figurative painters because the figure had been completely banned from the Avant-garde.  It was Pop Art which opened the door for the figure to come back after a long phase of exclusively minimal and abstract painting.  Realists like Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie, Chuck Close, or my teacher John Kacere, brought a new, bold, hyper-real vision of the figure to contemporary art.  They rescued realistic figure painting from the dusty, moldy salon image of the 19th century which the 20th century wanted nothing more to do with!  The fact that this new realistic figure painting embraced its relationship with photography was the key to re-enter the Avant-garde.

My painting clearly owes a great deal to the influence of the photorealists. But I also have to mention some of the early Dutch and German early-renaissance masters like Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Memling and Holbein, who were so obsessive in their exactitude that they could be considered the photorealists of the 15th century.  This period of northern European painting has always been my most treasured and admired.  As far as confinement and posing is concerned, that is what I have most wanted to get away from. That always bothered me, that fakeness.  People don´t go about their day constantly striking poses, for the most part.  I view my models and landscapes first through the camera before I begin to paint so it is possible to paint people in natural and random movement.  The camera has given us this great opportunity and as a modern painter it feels most natural to me to take advantage of it.


David: In “Primordial Tourists,” you decry humanity’s alienation from nature and write: “How absurd man seems stripped of his possessions and identity crutches.”  I add that man’s body loses its specialness and sexual radiation in harsh nature: filthiness, insect bites, blisters, infections ensue.  I thank art for rescuing the nude from blemish and degradation.  You present clean, sensual, attractive bodies.  “Tourists” continues: “[Y]et [Man] gains strength, clarity and beauty when we contemplate him abstractly, as a phenomenon of nature.”  Elaborate on your attempted resolution between the nude and the landscape, the glory of abstraction, the curious concept of “primordial tourists.”

SM: If it is true that man loses his sexual radiation in a natural environment, than I suppose that would give him a strong motivation to want to be rid of the bugs and plants that bite and cause rashes. But isn’t that an outrageously arrogant position toward nature, that our vanity alone justifies the extermination of thousands of species of plants and animals?  Outrageous, and unfortunately true.  We will destroy everything in our path to maintain our lofty position and satisfy our vanity and greed.  One of my first intentions with these nudes was to break through the artifice of the traditional form of the painted nude in landscape. I want them to feel more like records of man’s real interaction with nature than his fantasy of that experience.  In that point I agree with you that I have not yet included enough bug bites and blood, although you will notice that my fair-skinned model in Gorge is indeed a bit scratched up on her belly, from rock climbing. I will have to go much further with that if I want to turn away from the business of “rescuing the nude from blemish and degradation,” which of course is the traditional role of the nude: to create a blemish free, sexually radiant object for our visual consumption.  That is exactly what I would like to do, to push the nude toward a new, non-consumption oriented purpose, toward being a catalyst for self-reflection.


David: I agree with you that “nature does not possess an identity, it is.”  But I wonder about your claim that humanity’s true home is “independent of identity in a time of pure being.”  Along with agreeing with William Blake that nature is barren without man, I place humans’ beingness in identity and think it’s incumbent on us to transcend mere isness.  In his famous “Ten O’Clock” lecture (1885), James Whistler said that “to say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano.”  What is “pure being?”  Would we be better off existing anonymously in it?

SM:  I do not know if nature would be barren without man.  For us of course that is true, but I tend to believe that nature would thrive far better without us.  What I do know, is that man would be barren without nature.  Man has no chance of surviving outside of the ecosystem in which we live.  For me transcendence moves in the opposite direction: we must ultimately learn to let go of the idea of separate identity, or ego, and find ourselves as part of the one whole.  “Pure being” is for me this infinite power of creation of which we are all part.  By “we” I mean all physical manifestations of the infinite power of creation, plant, animal, human.  Some people refer to this ultimate home as the spirit.  I am always reluctant to talk about spirituality as it often meets with hostility in our contemporary society which is trying hard to rid itself completely of the concept of the spirit.

Peter Sloterdijk, the contemporary German philosopher, pointed out very accurately in his book Du musst dein Leben ändern that “vorauseilende Entgeisterung ist seit Jahrzehnten der Zeitgeist selbst” (translated as best as I can: “for decades already, run-away de-spiritualization is the spirit of the times itself”).  Whether we believe that we are living in a post-spiritual time or not, we all have firm roots in belief systems. Before Judaism and subsequent Christianity, many forms of religious beliefs embraced the idea that the natural world also possessed spirit. Judaism and Christianity introduced the idea that only man is created in God’s image and only man was given a divine soul.  The rest of nature was simply created by God for man to make use of.  Most contemporary Western societies follow this Judeo-Christian belief system, even if they do not consider themselves Jewish or Christian.  However, many eastern religions still embrace the idea that there is one spirit of which we are all part: plant, animal, human. The idea that all life arises from the same source of energy, and returns to it, is also supported by contemporary quantum-physics theories. Our attitude toward nature and ecology depends a great deal on which position we take regarding the spirit, or in which tradition of thought we are anchored.  


David: I can’t help but notice your unapologetic inclusion of female pubic hair.  This is heartening, since the boring trend of bald pudenda has persisted for at least the last 25 years.  (Despite my praise of artifice and mown flora, I applaud the tufts in Courbet’s Origin of the World, in any Delvaux or Magritte nude.)  What are your thoughts on the evident dearth of the “bush” in fashion, photography, even pornography?  Also, do you paint from live models?

SM: Essentially, the denial of the biological fact of body hair is just part of a much larger system of denial.  It’s all part of the same illusion that we are not part of nature.  The present deforestation of the human body originated in pornography.  The fact that it has become mainstream just reflects the fact that porn has become mainstream.  Porn has become accessible to anyone, anytime through the Internet and has become one of the largest profit-making industries that exist, and this industry is now controlling our sexual imagination.  Life is imitating fiction, the tail is wagging the dog.  So yes, I am aware that the occasional inclusion of pubic hair is a political statement, my little way of fighting the powers that be.  Probably the strongest motivating conviction behind my work is that reality is infinitely more fascinating and complex than any marketing genius creating fantasies would like us to believe and buy.


David: You work as a portraitist these days.  This must be a heavy responsibility: rendering a client’s image in both a flattering and honest manner.  Tell us about this profession, how it strikes you and what it involves.

SM: In general, I am working less and less as a portraitist, but I am, in fact, painting one at the moment.  It is a very, very difficult job.  Artists are invested in creating an interesting piece of art, not necessarily in flattery.  I do feel that I always make my subjects attractive, not because I am trying to flatter but because I legitimately see the people as beautiful.  The problem is that most people don´t feel beautiful themselves.  Probably because we live in a culture which constantly tells us that we must use our appearance for its market value. We are also constantly being told that our appearance should be improved, which will increase our value.  In other words, we are being told that we are not OK the way we are in order to sell us a constantly expanding array of products and procedures.  Of course, everyone wants to be attractive, especially for sexual advantages, that has always been the case, but I do believe that we have gotten to a very unhealthy level of insecurity.  The problem with making the portrait client happy is that it is virtually impossible to read their minds and recreate the fantasy that they have of what they should look like.  That is the only reason why I shy away from portraits, although there is nothing that I love to paint more than the human face. 


David: Susannah, I’m pleased that I discovered your lovely, important art.  Do you have any closing words for our readers?

SM: Thank you very much David.  It was my pleasure to talk with you, and thank you, readers, for your interest in my words and works.

Visit Susannah’s official website here.

View some of her work here.

David Herrle interviews David Gough, painter

Pushkin: “Into the field the devil evidently doth take us, Spinning us round and round every which way.”


I became acquainted with painter David Gough after striking up a correspondence about his Man/Son: The Haunting of the American Madonna collection (which was exhibited at the Hyaena Gallery in Burbank, California), since I was neck-deep in the writing of my upcoming book, which includes a section on the Sharon Tate murders.  Exploring his work beyond the Manson-related stuff, I found that David is an exceptional and astute artist who deserves a worthy place in Surrealist history.  His work tends toward the “dark” and grotesque, but a sensitive mind and eye are behind it.  I intend this exchange to reflect our mutual interest in the doom of Sharon Tate and her friends, the phenomenon of the Manson Family and some of the key themes of David’s art. – David Herrle


Herrle: The slaughter of Sharon Tate and her friends (and the LaBiancas) is a pivot point in U.S. history – and human history in general.  You describe the Tate legacy as essentially American: “Because that’s what America does.  It fosters the grotesque death of its celebrities and interweaves them as some part of its mythical folklore.”  You raise a good point.  James Dean, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe were pop-Olympians who met horrible demises, for example.  As a native Liverpudlian, do you view the U.S. as being particularly pendulous between glitter and gore, fame and ferocity?  Are Yankee stars double-valued if they go out with a bang or an arterial spray?

Gough: There’s a guaranteed infamy for sure, by the very nature of celebrity, and everything that is inherent in the product of that. The waning star, who becomes a box office guarantor upon bloody demise, is akin to any artifact that gains value posthumously. It could be perceived as a form of contemporary martyrdom, but certainly a bloody headline guilds the lily.  Is the relationship purely an American device? I believe that it is.  [Filmmaker] Kenneth Anger understood that when he compiled his tabloid grimoire Hollywood Babylon, which could in fact be a precursor to the notion of “glitter and gore,” as a mythological franchise.


Herrle: Your Man/Son painting collection and Rise book include American Madonna in their titles.  You describe the U.S.’s 1960s as “a decade christened by a faux slain Madonna”, and you admit the exhausting nature of your research into interrelated sinisterism: “[W]hen I get to the bottom there is Sharon Tate, the disfigured goddess.”  Sharon wasn’t pure and innocent, and her house was porous for all manners of scum (including some of the Mansonites), but by all accounts she was a gentle, loving person.  You know my conflation of her and Marie Antoinette.  To me Sharon was graceful beauty sacrificed by crass and envious wretches, rabble revolting against aristocracy, losers lacerating the prom queen.  She cast spells of both numinosity and envy.  Elaborate on your impressions of Sharon Tate.

Gough: Initially, Sharon was – on a very superficial and chauvinistic level – a cipher, or at least my search for the ultimate tragic muse, a Lizzie Siddal figure. I’d been transfixed by her in The Fearless Vampire Hunters as a kid, and so there was a dissonant thread there that I had wanted to trace from my Liverpool origins to my eventual relocation to California. Of course, I hadn’t grasped the full and terrible connotation of the very human, flawed Sharon yet: the bloodied, dead pregnant Sharon at Cielo drive.  I had just this rather archaic notion of a brutalized angelic figure, revered but pristine and sustained by the reverence of that memory. It was when I began painting her that her luminescence literally melted away to reveal the manifest ugliness of her ambitions, that she became the lamb and wolf in the center of the Ouroboros.


Herrle: A few years ago Charlie told Marlin Marynick that “[the Beatles] wasn’t saying anything,” but in the months leading up to the Tate murders he exploited the weird mystery of the band’s so-called White Album to excite his disciples.  You refer to the Beatles song “Revolution 9” and MKUltra in almost the same breath, implying mind-control.  Indeed, they claimed to have been hopped up on drugs and divorced from their volition when they did the devil’s business.  All of them related similar experiences of soul-deadness and indifference.  Susan Atkins: “I didn’t relate to Sharon Tate as being anything but a store mannequin.”  Tex Watson: “I wasn’t anyone.”  Linda Kasabian: “My mind went blank.”  (Similarly, Sirhan Sirhan and his lawyers claimed that he was hypno-programmed to be the fall guy for RFK’s assassination – and, of course, there’s Jim Jones’ People’s Temple.)  Then again, Atkins later said, “We were alert.  We knew what we were doing.”  In agreement with Vincent Bugliosi, I think that they were in their wits that night and the dissociative savagery was mostly due to bloodlust and rage, similarly to how Hutus gleefully butchered Tutsi neighbors.  They became human sharks driven wild by human chum.  Share your thoughts on mind control, the overall Beatles factor, the murderers’ states of mind.

Gough: Here was where I got into a real whirligig of insanity, because as someone brought up in the Beatles hometown, I had to inevitably qualify how those four moptops who changed the world with “love is all you need,” became dark prophets for Manson’s twisted game. Remember, Bugliosi had revolved the case for motive around the notion that the White album and the book of Revelation were – in Charlie’s twisted mind – one and the same.

Taking that idea on face value renders the argument that songs are codified incantations waiting to be unraveled by a shaman. This is presented in a 20th-century courtroom, not the medieval chambers of the grand Inquisition, remember. Who invoked, then, the Devil in the details? Except, Charlie never convinces me as the Machiavellian assassin his infamy portrays. Sure, he can talk up a storm except – up until his release from Terminal Island – he was a petty criminal.  His rap sheet is laughably comic to some extent. What happened when he was incarcerated to mold the Messianic monster?

We know that MKUltra was performing unclassified experiments on criminals during and beyond that period, without consent on Terminal Island and McNeil State Prison (the same prison both Manson and Sirhan Sirhan were held in). That Manson was also paroled through the Haight Ashbury state clinic, sponsored by the NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health, which had associations with a PSYOPS program in Tavistok going back to 1942. That the use of psychotropic drugs such as LSD had been used to influence and control human behavior.  That Eastern philosophy had also been studied as part of initial mind-control techniques for a fledgling initiative called Bluebird in the 1950s. Hidden between the nuances of melody was “Revolution 9” (Charlie’s Catcher in the Rye?). I’ll tell you, I listened to that song on loop for fourteen hours on a day when the heat was 106 degrees, in a studio with little ventilation, and thought I was entering the mouth of madness. It’s easy, then, to see how with the aid of mind-bending hallucinogens in the desert wilderness, one can rise up a dark army to do deadly deeds. 


Herrle: John Aes-Nihil insisted that the Tate/LaBianca murders were anything but coincidence, and you quote author Peter Levenda in your book: “[F]or the occultist there truly is no such thing as coincidence.”  You also quote a 1987 Manson interview in which he says that he both influenced and was influenced, that the crime “had no logic,” that he “was stuck in that psychotic episode” along with the others.  Could this be true to any degree?  Diabolical filmmaker Ken Anger admitted that his cinema was but “a transparent excuse for capturing people…working Evil in an evil medium.”  Can this method also be attributed to Charlie?  After all, most of Vincent Bugliosi’s prosecution was built on the premise that “[Manson’s] philosophy…led up to [the] murders.”  Who deserves the most guilt: the ringleader or the performers?

Gough: We are all culpable, and if memory serves, Manson likes to remind us that he is “Nobody” and “everybody.” That he was merely the Everyman locked in an inevitable happenstance – not one not of his doing, but of some universal integer, a collective, or an inherent bad juju.  Again, we are faced with a terrible dichotomy: one of predisposition by some omniscient presence, or a sequence of random variables which collide to some flashpoint event.  Both notions frighten me to death.


Herrle: No honest person can deny Manson’s peculiar ability to belt out some memorable rants.  He’s as quotable as Yogi Berra or Napoleon.  We listen to a lot of his epigrammatic, oddly poetic flourishes as children peek through their fingers at scary scenes in a movie.  Nonsensical/humorous: “Richard Nixon is my divorce court.  He’s my Elvis Presley’s testicles.”  Poignant: “I am only what lives inside each and every one of you…I am only a reflection of you.”  Koan-like: “How can explain no such thing as being no such thing?  If there is no such thing, then how can you explain no such thing is no such thing?”  Environmentally sensitive: “Anything you do that’s destroying the atmosphere is taking your life.”  How do you receive Charlie’s spiels?  Is it a matter of a methodical madness or a mad method?

Gough: I like that: “methodical madness or a mad method.”  I’d say it’s both. I listened to his rants to the point that, at times, I could hear his own voice invading my own. A lot of his dialogue is delivered like honky-tonk but falls flat on scat. He’s like a bad surrealist rapper, or a redneck Ginsberg on speed. I think there’s something in the rhythm, a method to his delivery that appealed to his fucked up charges. He’d have been laughed out of City Lights.


Herrle: In the same vein, should we admit worthiness in Charlie’s artWhere do we draw the line between the source and the product?  David Byrne rejects the notion of judging art by its artist: “I don’t care who or what made it…I don’t need to see their CV to like it.”  Menno Meyjes’ Max portrays Hitler when he was still a destitute and struggling artist.  Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer, tries to wrest Hitler’s creative side from his Thanatotic side by helping him find his artistic authenticity.  After Hitler hollers a seminal “blood Jew” speech to a packed hall, Rothman is beaten to death by frothed-up attendees of the rally.  That was Hitler’s art: pools of blood and the creation of corpsesI wonder just how much of the Mansonites’ crimes were based on Charlie’s failed music career.  Could Charlie, like Hitler, have been something better?  Or do you think that he, like Hitler, was an empowered loser who did find his authentic art?

Gough: A good friend of mine is continuously frustrated by what he perceives as my obsession with an intellectual dwarf. I have to agree with his assessment, Manson, without the “con” in “conspiracy” is the archetypal snake-oil salesman, and a mediocre one at that, except – and here is the true unveiling of my purpose – I am inclined to believe that had he been truly atrocious, his “art” would have been lauded.  In that much he was innovative, because he was born before the time when lowbrow had esteem and crass was cachet. You could make the case that, in the similar vein of Hitler, he took the easy way out, and made a dictator of his ambitions instead, except which legacy holds the greater value now: that of blood or paint?


Herrle: You specialize in detecting and analyzing “sinister architecture” in structures, locations and items.  Liverpool, your hometown, seems to be one of the many physical vortices of mystical evil – and, fittingly for the Manson story, the Beatles hale from the town.  (I can’t help but think of the name of the Tate Liverpool art gallery.)  You point out that Madame Blavatsky stopped in Liverpool en route to India, and that the town is home to 13 Masonic lodges and the pyramidal Mackenzie tomb.  “Something was dark in Liverpool,” you write, “something darker than a Clive Barker novel.”  You even refer to the opening hubbub of the 2012 Winter Olympics as “occult ceremony.”  Are such symbols and events designed, merely coincidental or conforming to an overall historical/spiritual pattern?  Please elaborate on some of your observations and conclusions.

Gough: If we are all the summation of our surroundings, then it could be argued that even on a subterranean level our behaviors are formulated geographically. The very foundation of human civilization is its adherence to a certain sacred geometry. Be it pyramid or church, the aesthetic and mathematical, mysticism of structure is maintained from earliest Sumeria to Vegas. Now, my theory of sinister architecture works on the premise of equations all converging like threads in a tapestry toward some flashpoint event. In this case: the steaming valve being August 8th and 9th, 1969 and the Manson murders. Inherent in that are commonalities. Institutions built on sacred native burial grounds, homes built on tunnels, Egyptian iconography, dates that coincide with significant astronomical alignment, and glaring historical coincidences from the destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the detonation of the A-bomb at Nagasaki. Sinister architecture is inherent in everything, and no more imposing than surrounding the Tate/LaBianca murders.

What artists have influenced you the most?  You’ve done a self-portrait in which Vincent Van Gogh’s head spiritually morphs into yours.  Aside from the similarity of your surnames, why do you also use the “Van” sometimes?  Tell us about your affinity for (identity with?) him.

Gough: The artist I’ve returned to consistently since the age of 12 is Bosch, so I would have to name him first. It’s the baseness of human condition as epic parable that is appealing, along with the magnificence of spectacle. Goya’s so-called black paintings leave me gaping on the chasm of my own charlatanism. And at the moment, I’m rediscovering my love of the Weimar artists, the Expressionists in particular: Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and George Grosz.  One can see the crawling bug that so offended and reflected the repellent Hitler, when he staged his Entarte Kunst exhibit. As for the use of Van in my name, it’s an acronym, which for years I balked at purely because of the connotation that comes with it. Now of course, having lived and endured all the inevitable pitfalls of being a practicing “figurative” artist, I feel I can wear the moniker as a level of irony. The whole process of artistic expression is a kind of madness after all.


Herrle: Speaking of famous artists, you’ve a nice, eclectic mix of portraits in your Visage collection, including Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Poe, Joseph Conrad and – most importantly – Lana Del Rey (in Joan of Arc iconography).  Were these commissioned works or personal projects?  If you like, please share your thoughts on some of them.  And why Lana (who I find compelling and lovely)?

Gough: The portraits are mostly good way of exercising my skills.  They don’t usually take very long, and I suppose they are a tip of the hat to artists who have influenced me. Why Lana Del Rey? Because after the whole SNL thing where she was vilified in the press, I saw her as a media construct, the ultimate ironic figure: a beneficiary of bad press, catapulted to the glare of the spotlight for mediocrity by mediocrity. It all struck me as a self-perpetuating trial by fire, which ultimately it was when you see the level of deception something like that diverts from true issues on the world stage. I’ll agree.  She is quite lovely, however.


Herrle: As a self-proclaimed necrorealist, most of your work involves the macabre (I hate that term) and grotesque.  There’s a Baudelairean vibe in both your work and how you present it.  For instance, you call your Exploding Musea measured reflection on the ravages of time eroding beauty as something innately beautiful.”  Those caught in the desperate dash for cosmetics and cosmetic surgeries feel differently, and who among us don’t shudder at the thought of the ultimate ravages: graveyard worms?  “Western civilization squirms uncomfortably around the notion of death,” you write in your Artist Statement.  Why do Westerners tend to have this fear?  As Shakespeare’s Richard II said, “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs.”  Tell us about necrorealism.  Tell us about the erosion of beauty.  Tell us about death.

Gough: Necrorealism was an art movement I discovered within the last few years.  It was started in Russia following the Cold War to represent the fall of idealism through death. I have always struggled to be categorized, as it’s something which is symbiotic with pandering to the marketplace, but it seemed as good a representation of where my manifest ideas lie as any.

I possibly see death in a similar way as Dali, who had a paradoxical relationship with death.  To paraphrase, he said something like “It has been killing me my entire life, with its cold voluptuousness.”  He saw death as a seduction, a gradual corruption of the flesh, and I think there is something of that in the way that Westerners perceive it that makes them uncomfortable – as if it’s something contrary to Puritanism. The taint of rotting meat, bloody offal and squirming maggots certainly have a devolved lasciviousness about them.



Herrle: What about you and all those skull paintings?  They make up the majority of your Theothanatos collection.  A skull doesn’t seem to be just an obvious symbol of mortality and decay for you, so what is its significance in your peculiar symbology?

Gough: Theothanatos began with a very different pretext in mind.  It was to be my truck with religion, my pulpit to pulpit, my taking God and the whole heavenly host to task, and for the first three or four paintings of that series, I feel I successfully held my own. That was until I painted Axiom (the huge skull in the sky, emblazoned with the black cross) before I realized that in fact the entire tenor of the series was a process of grief.

I was brought to my knees, reminded that I am an ant in the face of the black abyss – though not in any kind of metaphysical way, you understand. The skulls took on a life of their own, obsessional and invested with the characters of three friends who had died, and the significance of the number three in my life.  It became the realization that any statement for legacy’s sake could only ever dissolve into dust.


Herrle: Philosopher, novelist and sage G.K. Chesterton says it’s OK to look down into hell as Dante did, but you’ve seriously misinterpreted existence if you end up looking up from hell: “That the brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.”  In Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday protagonist Syme concludes that “bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident.”  Likewise, Pascal teaches that “there is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”  The truth often hurts, but hurt is not the truth.  David, we tend to see the ever-grinning skull behind every face; we can’t ignore the deafening thumps of the heart of darkness.  But are we looking up from hell, cherry-picking the darkness, distracted from purposeful Joy?  You write that “we constantly live under the pretext that there is some message to be gleaned from existence.”  Is there a message, a soul, a salvation?

Gough: Are we merely searching blindly, stumbling over strands in an attempt to find our way to a greater understanding, or is the path we uncover just happenstance, the cosmic illusion of order? Are we not just searching, then, for a validation for the pain of living? The martyr’s reward? Humanity diluted to the microcosm of Christ hanging from the cross.

It’s too great a question to contemplate, because there are too many platforms already trying to define what is and isn’t moral. When faced with the true nature of human existence, it becomes something that seems to require a signifier of civilized order or, rather, civilization as we propose to understand it. Good and evil are parables that can only co-exist by the virtue of the other, and I think Chesterton also said that Art, like Morality, has to draw a line somewhere.


Visit David’s official art site here and his blog here.

His new book, Rise: Man-Son and the Haunting of the American Madonna, is now available!

David Herrle interviews Dustin Brookshire, author of TO THE ONE WHO RAPED ME

From the site of the act of rape, consternation spreads outwardly in concentric circles. – Eldridge Cleaver

This has got to be the worst crime that leaves the victim alive, I think every time I’m faced with the fact of rape. It’s the worst non-fatal crime. Rape is a weapon, whether used in the mass rapes during the Bosnian War, the Rwanda holocaust’s obliteration of Tutsi women, the brutalization of German females by French and Russian troops in WWII, the Japanese reign of terror at Nanking, etc., or in a dark alley or penthouse bedroom. Then there’s race-based rape, such as the crime against Betty Jean Owens, a black woman, by four white savages back in 1959, and Eldridge Cleaver’s raping of white women as “an insurrectionary act” before his radical reformation. The demonic act dehumanizes both the victim and victimizer. Since this world-/history-wide crime fills me with both rage and grief, Dustin Brookshire’s debut chapbook, To the One Who Raped Me (2012, Sibling Rivalry Press) touched me instantly. Though I hesitate to use the term “economy” in regard to poetry, Dustin has it. He makes measured but powerful statements on both the rape he suffered and the fallout. The following exchange with the author is meant to inform, disturb and offer guidance at the same time.


DAVID: Dustin, you were raped by a former boyfriend, which supports the fact that so many rapists are ex-intimates, relatives or friends of victims.  A passage in The Truth About Rape said it best: “Violating trust is a form of aggression.”  Tell us about the shock of being brutalized by a person who you once trusted, desired and welcomed sexually – who took care of you after you’d been in a car accident only a week earlier.  Why and when did you decide to write the book?

DUSTIN:  I recently watched Tyler Perry’s movie For Colored Girls. There is a rape scene in the movie, and the scene is horrific through its well-thought cinematography.  The perpetrator, someone the victim had just been on a date with, holds her down and rapes her while she stares at a clock.  The camera focuses on her face, her tears, her watching the clock and how much time is passing.  She’s lifeless in disbelief that she is being violated.  Lifelessness is a common theme among rape scenes in movies.  Maybe the lifelessness is a product of the victim’s disbelief, or because the victim is moving herself beyond what is happening.  I say “she” because I can’t recall a movie that depicts male-on-male rape in this fashion.  However, that’s how it was for me.  I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.   I was in shock.

I wrote poems about the rape because I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone about it, and I didn’t start the cathartic process until six months after it happened.  Poetry has always served many purposes for me, one of those being a place of comfort.  Since one of the cardinal rules of poetry is to never assume that the writer is the speaker of the poem, it felt somewhat easier to put my thoughts, emotions and the experience on the page. 

In her autobiography Zora Neale Hurston writes: “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”  I couldn’t keep the agony inside me. That’s how the poems were born.  At the time I wasn’t even thinking about a book; I was trying to find a way to heal.

DAVID: In the opening poem, “I Don’t Like to Say the Word Rape”, the final stanza is chillingly brief: “There was No./Silence./Him coming inside.”  In the next poem, “Soap,” you describe a solemn but desperate act that has become the staple of rape-aftermath scenes: the shower that never quite cleanses.  “The feeling of him still clings,” you write later on.  Rape has a long reach, doesn’t it?  Even “I don’t like to say the word rape” includes the word “rape.”  Is the problem less about cleansing yourself and more about wishing to cleanse the aggressor of his behavior?  After all, in “To the One Who Raped Me” you reveal an impossible desire: “[T]o erase the moment after,/when you looked at me and smiled.”

DUSTIN:  The initial problem, for me, had nothing to do with wanting to cleanse my rapist of his behavior.  All of the emotions were centered on me.  I felt dirty.  I felt robbed.  I felt wrong.  I felt violated.  You think of an adjective with a negative connotation and there was probably some point that I felt it.  I wanted to rid myself of these feelings.  I was robbed and violated, but logically I knew that I wasn’t dirty or wrong.  I couldn’t stop feeling the way I did.  I can’t speak for all rape victims, but from the people I have spoken with and research I’ve conducted, I feel I can say this is commonality we share. 

For so long I wanted that moment after erased.  I had trouble reconciling how someone I once loved could hurt me in this manner and then smile at me after.  Now I no longer waste my energy on wanting to change what happened or that moment after.  Don’t get me wrong – I wish it hadn’t happened.  But I’ve accepted that it happened and that I can’t change the past.  I do control how I let the past affect me, and I won’t allow the rape to waste any of my energy or happiness.


DAVID: In “No Comedy in Tragedy” you describe your physical reaction to the rape scene in The Hills Have Eyes 2: “I twist. Heart races. Mouth goes dry…” The description is more explicit in the title poem:

I cringe now when there’s a rape scene in a movie.  My stomach cramps like a bully has hit me. I turn cold. Beads of sweat form a crown of shame across my forehead.

Doesn’t rape need to be depicted explicitly in order to make a truly sympathetic impact?  Some films come to mind instantly: Boorman’s Deliverance, Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Mia Goldman’s Open Window, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.  Your intense physical reactions aside, are you ultimately for or against rape scenes?

DUSTIN:  Am I for or against rape scenes?  This question is packed more than one of Dolly Parton’s bras, but I’m going to keep it simple.  My personal opinion is that rape is still too often a taboo topic for discussion, probably because it makes people uncomfortable.  People need to be reminded that it rape is not fiction.  Rape happens.  If a rape scene in a movie keeps people from forgetting that rape is still a problem that we’re dealing with, then I’m for rape scenes in movies.  However, I don’t watch rape scenes.  I still have a physical reaction to them, though my reaction is not as bad as it was the year following the rape. 


DAVID: Therapist Eugene Porter says that “there is no arena in which rape takes place between men and women that it does not take place between men and men,” and clinical psychologist David Lisak claims that “we have a cultural blind spot about this.”  Male-on-male rape is an underestimated crime in both seriousness and frequency.  This is especially true in prisons.  If you’re a new inmate who’s young, passive, diminutive and/or effeminate, you’re a prime target.  Another big rape-resume item in prison is being openly gay.  In “How Can I Tell Them” you write that your father taught you “to be a man’s man,” implying that he wouldn’t have shown much sympathy for what happened to you.  Does your being gay factor into this implied disconnection?  What dynamic does homosexuality play in rape?

DUSTIN:  My father is in his early 60s.  I didn’t think my father would have sympathy for me, and I thought he wouldn’t be able to understand how I was raped.  I feared he would place the blame of the incident on me.  I didn’t give my father enough credit.  After Sibling Rivalry Press accepted my chapbook I had a family meeting with my mother and father to tell them what had happened to me because I didn’t want them to come across my book by accident and be hurt that I didn’t tell them in person.  Telling my parents was such a liberating moment for me.  My parents were amazing. Even though he was trying to hide it, I could tell my father was angry that someone had hurt me.  My mother looked at me and asked, “You never told us because you were hurt and ashamed, even though you did nothing to be ashamed of?”  They’ll never know how perfectly that uncomfortable conversation went and how much I needed that from them.

For the longest time I felt that my father was disappointed that I am gay.  I based this feeling on conversations I overheard as a child and other events.  After I came out he never treated me any differently than he had before I came out.  I think I strained our relationship by feeling uncomfortable around my father because I worried how he felt about me being gay. Rape is about control, violation, and domination.  I’m not sure being gay has much of dynamic in rape other than the fact that a gay man or lesbian is most likely going to rape a person who is the same sex.


DAVID: Here’s a clip from your “Law & Order: SVU”: I imagine what isn’t: The rapist victimized in prison. His breakdown.  A suicide attempt. A life without redemption.Another poem, “Living Vicariously Through Extremities,” cheers on the vengeful action of the protagonist in Extremities, a 1986 film starring Farrah Fawcett: “The embers of revenge in her eyes. The loss of power through his hands like water through a sieve.”

Fawcett’s character prevents rape with her aggression, but anyone who has seen the original or remake of I Spit on Your Grave, which involves a sickening gang rape, knows the guilty but cathartic thrill of seeing an actual victim eventually strike back in “creative” ways.  In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo protagonist Lisbeth is raped by her legal guardian.  Eventually she tases and sodomizes the creep, then tattoos “I AM A SADIST, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST” on his belly.  “Godammit, why didn’t you fight?” you ask yourself in “The Flowerbed of Regret,” and you admit in the book’s title poem that “I often think of ways you could die.”  However, you acknowledge that the perp’s “suffering won’t bring me happiness.”  Are vengeful fantasies therapeutic at least?  Can two wrongs balance the scales?  Is there redemption for a rapist?

DUSTIN:  In the months after the rape, vengeful fantasies were therapeutic.  Simply put, they made me feel good.  I eventually realized, though, that these negative thoughts were a Band-Aid that wasn’t allowing my wound to heal.  Even though I enjoyed Lisbeth tattooing her rapist, in real life I don’t think two wrongs balance the scales.  We have a judicial system in the United States that is meant to balance the scales, and if we feel the system isn’t working, then we need to take action to correct it. 

I was raised to believe that we are supposed to forgive anyone who wrongs us because it is what Christ wants us to do.  I did forgive my rapist, but it had nothing to do with any Christian values.  To forgive is to give up resentment.  I gave up that resentment when I accepted that I had been raped and that being a rape survivor would always be part of me.  I did this for me – it wasn’t for the rapist.  I would never tell a rape victim that he/she has to forgive his/her rapist; however, I would the victim he/she has to accept that it happened and talk to at least one person about it.  A silent path isn’t a path to healing and recovery.


DAVID: I think rape of children is the worst kind.  It shatters the runner’s legs before he or she can start the race.  Anyone who watches A&E’s Intervention knows that the majority of addicts suffer from childhood sexual abuse.   And, sadly, most of the parents mishandle, bury or deny what happened.  But, as you write, “when it is done, it isn’t done.”  Do you think that child rape does more damage?  Considering the cover-ups of boy rape by clergy and scum such as Jerry Sandusky (not to mention the rampant forced prostitution in places such as India and Thailand), why is there such a wall of silence in underage-rape cases that involve boys in particular?

DUSTIN:  I knew someone in high school who was sexually abused by her brother when she was a child.  Her brother was also a child at the time.  I couldn’t comprehend why she allowed her brother to be in her life.  Then it came out that  he reenacted what a neighbor had done to him, and it was the fact that he reenacted his abuse on his sister that their parents found out about his abuse.

Instead of seeking out a therapist for them, their parents pulled a Prince of Tides: acted like it never happened.  The brother ended up with a drinking problem, and the girl tried to commit suicide twice.  I think life would have been different for them both if their parents hadn’t ignored what happened.

I think the rape of a child has the potential to do more damage because children are still developing psychologically.  Such an act arrests their development.  I don’t know why there is a wall of silence in underage rape cases involving boys. As I said earlier, the topic of rape is still often taboo, and this is very much the case for same-sex rape.  I don’t know if parents think they are protecting the victims by embracing silence and honestly believe healing will occur with the silence.  I don’t know if parents are selfish and believe people will think they are bad parents because the incidence occurred.


DAVID: In the early 1990s, Camille Paglia wrote that “rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society,” but she also made comments that many folks considered offensive.  “A woman going to a fraternity party is walking into Testosterone Flats, full of prickly cacti and blazing guns,” she said in an interview.  “A girl who goes upstairs alone with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot.  Feminists call this ‘blaming the victim.’  I call it common sense.”  In The Accused, a film you reference in the book, Jodie Foster’s character is gang-raped in a bar – but her well-known promiscuity clouds where the blame lies.  While vulnerable folks should be more vigilant (because “tempting fate” can result in horrors) I insist that all legal and moral force must crash down on the rapist(s) alone.  What are your thoughts on the facts-of-life angle?

DUSTIN: I worried about what others would think when I started being open about being raped because I have never been an angel.  I love sex, and I was never shy about taking an attractive guy to my bed.  I was so worried that someone was going to try to use this fact against me.  Earlier on in my healing process, I wouldn’t have been able to handle that kind of comment.  Now, well, bring it.  I’d chew someone up and spit them out in five seconds if he/she dared tried to use my consensual decisions against me.  The bottom line is that no means no.  Wearing a short skirt isn’t asking for it.  Wearing tight clothes is not asking for it.  Being promiscuous does not mean that a person loses a right to decide who he/she has sex with. 

Many people do not know that The Accused is based on actual events.  On March 6, 1983, a woman entered Big Dan’s, a sports bar in Bedford, Massachusetts, for a drink and pack of cigarettes.  She was gang raped by six men while others watched and did nothing.  Some cheered the rapists on.  No person, male or female, should have to fear living his/her life for any reason.  We shouldn’t have to think in terms of what we can do to protect ourselves around every corner, but the sad fact is that we should think in these terms to a certain level.  I would never say a girl who goes to a man’s bedroom at a fraternity party is an idiot.  My best friend of over 10 years is a heterosexual male who was a member of fraternity.  Any girl would have been safe when alone with him.  That being said, I think erring on the side of caution is never a bad life tactic.  RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) has seven categories of Ways to Reduce your Risk of Sexual Assault.  Check the tips out.  Share them with friends.  People have to talk about it.


DAVID: Would you want the one who raped you to read To the One Who Raped Me?  After all, the very title sounds like a dedication.  Having known him once, how do you think (or wish) the book would strike him?

DUSTIN:  The book is dedicated to the one who raped me.  It’s my way of saying fuck you.  I used to think he would realize the book was dedicated to him and burn him with embarrassment.  The rape was about control.  I broke up with him, and he took what he wanted to end it in control.  A year after the rape he sent me an email that read: “Hey. You were on my mind.  How are you?”  Do you think he would have checked in on me if he felt that he had done anything wrong?


DAVID: Sibling Rivalry Press donates $1 to the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center each time one of your chapbooks sells.  Tell us about the DeKalb and how you became involved with it.

DUSTIN: I have always felt the need to pay a penance for not pressing charges.  This penance took the form of doing good, and I wanted my chapbook to do good in my community.  I knew about the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center because they are known in the metro Atlanta area for their amazing work. I reached out to the DRCC’s executive director, Phyllis Miller, to confirm that the DRCC would accept donations from the purchase of my chapbook.  I’ll never forget the phone call with Phyllis.  I was so nervous, but it all melted away because Phyllis was a delight.  She was thrilled that I thought of them.   I met her for a tour of the facility and to have an in-depth in-person conversation with her.

Even though it was evident on their website that the DRCC provides services to all people – no matter their sexual orientation or gender – Phyllis reaffirmed that the DRCC operates on the premise that rape is a human problem, not just a women’s issue. Phyllis and her team do such great work.  I hope people will consider donating to the DRCC or their nearest rape crisis center. 


DAVID: You’ve said that “silence won’t change the world,” and I admire your brave voice, Dustin.  Now that you’ve slain the dragon with To the One Who Raped Me, what’s the plan for your next work?  Any closing words?

DUSTIN:  I have another chapbook entitled I Should Write Soap Operas that I am going to be sending out this year in the hopes of finding it a home, and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first full-length manuscript.

Thank you, David, for giving me this space in SubtleTea.  And I need to say thank you for giving me what I consider my first real publishing credit back in 2005.  To anyone who was raped and is living in silence, tell one person that you trust about what happened to you.  You will be amazed at the relief you’ll experience. 



Buy the book here.

Read some poems here.

RAINN: Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network