Recent Drawings at the Sir John Cheshire gallery,
April - May 2004
Two steps as the subject of a picture must inevitably
provoke comment. Where do they lead? Why are they significant in
themselves? What are they doing, literally, in the middle of nowhere?
And who, therefore, might ever use them?
Paul Gough’s picture ‘Mount’ is but one of a series
of works which invites such conjecture. Nor does it stop there.
What of the idea of steps? Do they suggest progress, ascent (or
perhaps descent), or are they just man-made objects in a natural,
if starkly barren, environment?
The visual arts in themselves rarely provide straightforward explanations
but, in the odd juxtaposition of the familiar and the incongruous,
the artist here creates a particular mood of reflection.
To Jersey eyes it has a particular resonance. You might say that
it looked distinctly unreal except that a walk on Les Landes common
reveals many such images telling their own story. Progress, ascent,
descent? No, just a past conflict. The participants may have long
departed but the landscape retains such extraordinary traces operating
both on the level of historical artefacts, with their own narrative
ready to be ‘discovered’ by the historian, but also
at the symbolic level suggestive of the imposition of a foreign
order on the natural world.
With a doctorate in First World War Art and a fascination with the
landscape of battle, Professor Gough is steeped in the traditions
of war iconography. While his work is of the imagination rather
than an attempt to render specific events, he knows that even an
imagined landscape has a voice of its own.
Artists have often found it easier to record conflict through such
‘voices’, partly, doubtless, for practical reasons but
also perhaps because the horrors of war often translate with some
difficulty to canvas or paper. As Robert Hughes once put it: “…
distortion of the human body in art seemed to many sensitive minds
to have no future - in fact, to be little more than an impertinence
or an intrusion…Reality had so far outstripped art that painting
was speechless. What could rival the testimony of the photograph?”
Perhaps for this reason some of the most evocative images of war
deal not with human carnage directly but rather with physical assault
on landscape. Paul Nash’s Void (1918), which was used to promote
the Barbican’s exhibition A Bitter Truth ten years ago, is
a case in point. There are soldiers, alive and dead, to be glimpsed
in miniature but prominence is rather given to shattered tree stumps,
furrowed earth and the ‘corpses’ of the broken machines
Lone trees and stark objects which testify to human intrusion into
landscape are images common to Paul Gough’s work. They occupy
the space from which man has been expelled, leaving only the uneasy
sense that some unspecified event is responsible for the silence
and the solitude.
Here, certainly, is peace but it is a peace which has been paid
for by an irrevocable alteration of the natural world, a world bathed
in the indeterminate light of the dream, or perhaps of the stage-set
consciously manipulated by the designer to heighten or remove shadow
by artificial means.
The fact that these works seem to acquire a special significance
in an Island whose landscape was transformed during the Occupation
testifies to the power of art over historical record whose very
specificity serves paradoxically to limit meaning. Paul Gough’s
work is not ‘about’ any particular conflict; it deals
with the relationship between memory and landscape.
Through images which seem to belong to a collective consciousness
or experience, we have a sense of the extent to which the natural
order of things has been subtly disturbed by the unseen influence