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 art? Where 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 corpses. I 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.
Herrle: 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 Muse “a 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.
His new book, Rise: Man-Son and the Haunting of the American Madonna, is now available!