37 DIGITAL SKETCHES ON THE THEME OF AIRCRAFT CAMOUFLAGE
The theme grew out of the preceding series, Endangered Species, where I was impressed with how so much native fauna seemed to blend into their surroundings, at least for the stranger. Camouflage no doubt evolved to enable species to elude predators and aid preying. It was not something I felt I could really get at with Endangered Species, which were more about vulnerability. But this double-edged quality, camouflage for both attack and defence, stayed with me. Camouflage also has affinities with the idea of encryption and an earlier series, stressing ominous secrecy. Camouflage thus allowed me to combine strands of these preceding series and to formulate a more ambivalent sense – something like the precariousness of aggression or the militancy of concealment.
The most familiar applications of camouflage are of course, military. Aircraft seemed the most striking example because of their great mobility. Camouflage is only as good as its stable background obviously, so that for aircraft, in practice, it can be only fleeting or partial. They demonstrate an extreme for camouflage in this way, an epitome of aggression, an epigone of disguise. But I was not content with something as straightforward as contemporary military subterfuge, naturally. Camouflage here can also be a metaphor for other covert menace. The choice of settings hopefully gives my warplanes this more symbolic meaning, suggests other realms, perhaps earlier work and recurrent psychological themes. Camouflage and flight are not to be taken too literally or superficially here.
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In terms of style, the series also combines aspects from past work, but with a slight twist. Colour is handled differently. Colourising black and white sources brings distinctive chromatics, for instance. Some of the scrambled spatial and tonal concerns from pre-digital work are also recovered, which was surprising but rewarding. In this respect the work harks all the way back to Car People (1992-4) and many points in between. I now consider some of the current series amongst my best or favourite work because of this wealth of allusion. Or, they would be, if I could paint them. All works are just numbered, more or less in the order in which they were done (allowing for the fact that I am a compulsive re-worker, so that while some were started well before others, it’s tricky to say which was actually the last to be completed). If there is an opportunity to paint them, I will probably come up with more evocative titles. Since they are only Photoshop files I haven’t bothered with dimensions either. I toyed with presenting them clustered according to airborne, landing, taxiing and so on, but decided it was too tedious. Basically, they track shifting conditions of identity and disguise. As with Endangered Species, the planes’ habitat extends to their pictures. They are always a sort of picture of a sort of plane, even as each fractures.
The series took a long time for digital works – from April to August – partly because of difficult circumstances, partly because of the expansive theme but mostly because there’s always an element of luck or serendipity to the process. That’s probably true of most art actually. For me, it arises through finding the right kind of source imagery and re-orientating it, or finding it in the right kind of way and with painting or drawing, more traditionally, with having just the right kind of touch there. It’s always a bit hit and miss. It’s maddening. And it was never more so than here.
The reason there are so many is not because they were easy to do, but because the terms of camouflage kept opening up, becoming less to do with military advantage than more mythic or poetic reference. The planes brought tricky issues of design and presentation. Virtual or simulated displays, mock-ups and prototypes are a big part of how warplanes are now made, operate and marketed. They are thus a prime example of the free exchange between image and object I often stress as irrealism. This adds more troubling levels of deception to the theme and unavoidably brings an element of science fiction and digital games to the work.
Apart from camouflage, warplanes carry associations of remoteness and technological sophistication. They are exquisite weapons for the most insubstantial of terrains – the sky. Yet they are also capable of supreme destruction on the ground. Is it any wonder they beg to be read as metaphor for some crazed ambition, arch scheme or private enterprise? On a technological level, it’s interesting how major engineering advances have largely stagnated over the past forty years or so and rival nations steadily converge upon identical designs, adding to issues for identity, or perhaps camouflaging a lack of progress. Here too, warplanes sum up something more general about our world. On a personal level, the theme runs deep. My father was in the air force and as a child I was an avid collector of model kits. In 1983 I did a series of coloured crayon drawings of Hawker Harriers, to accompany the production of my short film Harrier Attack! – a Post-Falklands satire. I’ve no idea what happened to the drawings. They decorated a wall of the producer’s flat for a party, I remember that much.
There is one final strand to the theme of camouflage. This has to do with disguising source imagery collected from the web. Unacknowledged (and illegal) use of web imagery is a pervasive issue and not just in art. Almost all of the source imagery for this series strictly needs copyright clearance, but instead trades on substantial modification and augmentation – or as camouflage. How much modification is sufficient to avoid litigation, remains to be tested and I suppose there may be an artist somewhere intent upon claiming some nugatory minimum in this matter – such as the Median Noise filter in Photoshop, say, applied to any web-sourced image. It would be an extreme position, but not implausible in the current climate.