Camouflage Self-Portrait (A Man Like Mr Kurtz)

Cibatrans mounted in light box
101.7 x 101.7 cms
1994

A portrait of the Artist from the neck up with camouflage paint.

Exhibitions

Essays

  • This Is Not A Story About The Military - Hardy Blechman SHOW

    This Is Not A Story About The Military - Hardy Blechman

    In 1909, when the Victorian naturalist and painter Abbott H. Thayer published his observations about concealment in nature, it’s fairly certain he had no idea what he was starting. Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom was the first comprehensive catalogue of the many camouflage techniques employed in the natural world, and Thayer argued that nature was acting as an artist, creating optical effects with colour and light. On this basis he suggested that his study belonged in the realm of the artist as well as the naturalist. His thesis coincided with the birth of Cubism and, interestingly, with the emergence of Gestalt perceptual psychology. ‘Gestalt’ means ‘shape’ or ‘figure’, and its theorists sought to explore how the brain organizes and interprets visual material through form, context, spatial proximity and patterning. Perhaps unsurprisingly the primary concepts of Gestalt gained some credence within the art world, in particular with Klee and Kandinsky a decade or so later.

    But it wasn’t just in the art world that significant changes were taking place. The early twentieth century saw a seismic shift in the visual techniques employed by military forces worldwide, primarily as a result of the development of longer range and more

    accurate weaponry. These new technological developments negated the traditional use of the military uniform, such as the famous red coat of the nineteenth century British army. The red coat had long been a symbol of military pride and was intended to visibly intimidate the enemy on the battlefield. But the trench warfare of World War One required different strategies. Colour on the battlefield was no longer used to inspire fear, but to conceal. In an unlikely meeting of opposites – the military and the arts – many modern painters were recruited into the army and given the task of using their new techniques, developed through the study of camouflage in nature, to disguise weapons, vehicles, and ultimately, men.

    The French army led the way with its dedicated camouflage section under the direction of artist Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scevola and produced new innovations for concealment in the air, on land and at sea. The Cubists, many of whom fought in the Great War, and ever open to conceptual challenges, had already begun to reinterpret and mimic the camouflage techniques found in nature. It was Picasso who apparently first used the term ‘dazzle’, in reference to the need for warships

    to dazzle (i.e. ‘mislead’) their enemies at sea. Under the direction of British marine artist and Naval Commander Norman Wilkinson, the navy founded a ‘Dazzle Section’ based at the Royal Academy of Arts. Here a group of eighteen artists including Wilkinson and the Vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth developed paint schemes for warships that used disruptive patterns to confuse enemy gunners as to the target’s course, speed and direction. (In 2008 Jeff Koons showed a painted yacht, ‘Guilty’, that was directly inspired by the dazzle painted ships of WW1.)
    The essential role of the artist as camoufleur continued in the Second World War, and by the time the war had ended, camouflage was deeply entrenched in twentieth century visual culture. New printing techniques had facilitated the mass production of army uniforms, and the development of international mass media in documenting war had brought camouflage into the public eye on a scale like never before. The first post-war artist to appropriate camouflage was the French painter Alain Jacquet. Exploring an interest in the visual effects of disruptive patterns, Jacquet created camouflage interpretations of his peers’ works, including Camouflage Jasper Johns (after John’s Flag, 1954) and Camouflage Hot Dog Lichtenstein, both in 1963.

    In 1964, Jacquet reinterpreted Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, which he described as breaking “reality into dots”, and thus having the same properties as camouflage. In 1964, Jacquet wore a camouflage suit recycled from a US Army parachute to the opening of his show at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York, attended by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

    Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940-94) famously discovered surplus camouflage cloth (the ‘telo mimmetico’ pattern, created in 1929 for the Italian army) in a flea market. He used it to create works in 1966 and 1967, stretching the cloth as though it was a blank canvas and turning it into a visual artefact, thus subverting its original intention of concealment. The same decade saw the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-War response to Vietnam in America – the counter culture, in all its many manifestations, took to using army surplus as a new symbol of resistance to the Establishment, again subverting the purpose of camouflage from one of hiding to being seen, this time for political reasons.

    It was newspaper coverage rather than surplus trade that led to Warhol’s re-appropriation of the US Army Woodland camouflage pattern

    in 1986 for his famous Camouflage series. Unlike Boetti, Warhol reworked the pattern’s original colourways and scale, although he left the shapes intact. Warhol used these camouflage patterns as a base for nearly 70 works including The Last Supper, Self Portrait and his portrait of Joseph Beuys. Warhol’s fascination with camouflage as a perfect form with which to explore the possibility of pure abstraction mirrored his own personal need for disguise. Perhaps it’s this central idea of disappearing, blending in, or inversely standing out, whether personally, socially, or politically, that makes camouflage so seductive to many artists. The lure of camo can be seen in modern works as diverse as the ‘pop’ camouflage of graffiti artist Leonard McGurr (Futura 2000) throughout the 80s, the architecturally camouflaged ‘Cloud Towers’ of Emile Aillaud in Paris, and the museum performances of Harvey Opgenorth in 1998, in which the artist stood in front of classic paintings by Matisse and Rothko wearing clothes that blended perfectly with the colours on the canvases.

    More recently the idea of appropriation, the recycling (of theft?) of images has been at the heart of much contemporary artistic work that references camouflage. Gavin Turk’s 2007 exhibition ‘Me as

    Him’ projects both Turk and the Warhol, the men and the images, under a layer of silk-screened camouflage, challenging the idea of the self-portrait as something authentic with ‘deeper meaning’, and looking only to the façade for answers. Damian Hirst’s Amazing Revelations collage (2007) uses thousands of butterfly wings to make abstract patterns and inadvertently demonstrates some of the most skillful camouflage techniques used in nature. Hirst’s interest in butterflies as a metaphor for mortality is perhaps linked to the obvious visual use of camouflage as a survival mechanism.

    Despite all of this, however, and despite the continued presence of camouflage in music, fashion and contemporary culture, the fact that the use of camouflage in the twentieth century developed through the synergy of nature and art is often overlooked. We could argue that its primary symbolic association is still with the military. Today, as more military special forces adopt black uniforms along with the use of new pixelated patterns in army camouflage, the traditional disruptive pattern – the khaki or sand uniforms that have become iconic cultural visual signifiers of war and combat for over a hundred years – becomes less useful. Does this mean that we will

    be able to culturally reclaim camouflage, divorcing its original artistic and natural function from military needs? Each time another artist uses the disruptive pattern in a non-military context, will this slowly reshape our perception on the meaning of camouflage? Perhaps eventually when we see a Warhol canvas or a rap album cover or a Japanese toy that uses a well-known camouflage pattern, it might be possible for us to respond to the colour, shape and form in its new context, without being dominated by the pattern’s prior historical military associations. We have to remember that the desire of Thayer or Braque or Picasso to explore the visual techniques found in natural forms was really a desire to understand themselves. The need to hide or to reveal oneself is not the same as the need to declare war.

  • Kurtz Text - Michael Holden SHOW

    Kurtz Text - Michael Holden

    One might imagine that as Joseph Conrad typed together the character of Mr Kurtz at the back end of the 1800’s he had no notion that his equatorial phantom, the diseased and mythic antagonist of what would become his best known book, would survive and even thrive as one of the great enigmatic figures of all time. But I like to think he knew what he was doing; that he had seen enough of human nature and the colonial process to understand precisely how our species’ instincts would unfold and repeat themselves over the coming century. And from that knowledge he forged a character whose fall from optimism into fevered anarchy could survive a hundred years of academic study and even the great mutating lens of Hollywood and continue to beguile. I think he knew that we had lived in fear of Kurtz-within us and without us-long before his book was begun, and he knew that fear would abide.

    For those without the inclination to navigate the 96 pages of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness the abiding image of Kurtz will be that of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now; skulking in the shadows to hide his own obesity rather

    than from any cinematic intention, transported from Conrad’s Congo to Coppola’s Vietnam but muttering the same last lines about “the horror…” in the face of a civilising mission gone wrong. But while the movie begins and ends in Asia the book opens on the Thames estuary where its narrator, Marlow, invokes Drake, the Romans and anyone else who ever sailed past the Essex marshes in pursuit of foreign goals, it is a story that from its outset is rooted in antiquity, greed and the persistence of pain.

    As the sun sets over England Marlow tells his shipmates the tale of his voyage along the Congo as a kind of ghost story, one that led him the spectre of the man his mission set out to relieve, and one that concludes in literal and figurative darkness. Marlow explains how he went to Africa to work for “the company,” whose colonial endeavours seem to represent the process of civilization itself, a process Conrad paints as futile and insane.

    Everything Marlow sees points toward chaos. An armoured gunboat fires artillery into the jungle at invisible enemies; a man tries to extinguish a fire with a hole in his

    bucket; everybody lies, everybody gets sick. Their attempts to tame the jungle with bureaucracy for profit drive the company men to murder. “When one has to make correct entries, one comes to hate these savages, hate them to death.” But at the end of the river waits the rumour of a man who sees things differently, Kurtz. Kurtz is “a prodigy,” “an emissary of pity, science and progress.” Most importantly though, Kurtz gets results for the company, “he had stolen more ivory than all the agents put together.” Marlow, a good guy-but a pragmatist is surprised to discover that Kurtz had set out, “with moral ideas of some sort,” and wonders what this Renaissance figure could have done that the company might want stopped?

    In the end Marlow doesn’t get to see the enigma in action, but he gets an eyeful of the aftermath. Kurtz comes to him on his hands and knees, “not much heavier than a child.” Kurtz’s station has dissolved into anarchy, decorated with severed human heads and great bales of ivory patrolled by a native army, loyal to the ailing Kurtz, who seems to have gone insane. Having threatened to kill Kurtz it

    is Marlow who nurses him and protects him from the company, “that imbecile crowd,” who seek only to extinguish the man, assimilate his profits and press on.

    Marlow assures his audience that Kurtz, “was a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk.” By the time we meet him though he has nothing left to say, a shattered optimist run wild and destroyed by experience. It is a Russian adventurer who fills in Marlow the details of Kurtz in his prime before he too abandons the scene. He speaks of a reader of poetry, a painter, a visionary who had tamed the wilderness, at least for a moment, until it bit back like a snake un-charmed.

    As he watches Kurtz die Marlow takes possession of his most telling artefact, a report he has written for, “The International Society For The Suppression Of Savage Customs.” Seventeen pages long, the document is all positive prognoses for the company project, “we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,” and applied insights set out in neat handwriting until, at a

    later date, it’s author scrawls across it his ultimate conclusion, “exterminate all the brutes.”

    “His mind was clear,” says Marlow, “but his soul was mad,” yet he offers a less lyrical analysis as well. He suggests that Kurtz’s intellect became subordinate to his greed, that he suffered from, “images and wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression,” although that could also be Conrad discussing his own dilemmas as a writer, it’s still a valid point. For all his abilities and aspirations, Kurtz is just another dictator undone.

    He might be a resonant character but in the end though Kurtz is a just a symptom, an example of what can and will go wrong, the product of an environment that exceeds the imaginations of those who try to tame it. The jungle itself, and what it represents are the real enigmas of the story as it calls the characters “to the profound darkness of its heart.” Conrad’s tale hints at a malign wisdom at the core of life that mocks the living. Marlow even berates his audience when he thinks they’re missing the point, “the inner truth is hidden…I felt

    often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you.”

    The notion of Kurtz as colonial metaphor still has resonance, but if you look for instance at the occupation of Iraq you can see how potentially Kurtzian figures in the American military-people who might have spoken the language, grasped the culture and gathered popular support before it all went wrong-were overlooked, replaced and overruled by feral bureaucrats from back home. This is Kurtz’s fate in the end as well. The company men dismiss his ivory as inferior product and with a gift for euphemism any modern speechwriter would recognize they assess that, “he did not see the time was right for vigourous action…the methods are unsound.” This is why invading countries means never having to say you’re sorry-if you’re quick enough to replace and blame the people who prepared the ground. Never mind the fact that you employed them in the first place, the beat goes on.

    You might find comparison too in the demise of frontline capitalism, see Kurtz as a mad accountant, surrounded by the wreckage of his fantasy, apologised for by the same legislators that encouraged him

    to be all he could be. We will all know better next time perhaps. Except, as Conrad continues to inform us, we probably won’t.

    In an ending that could stand alone as a master class in modern fiction Marlow tells how he had taken Kurtz’s widow a painting he had entrusted to him, but when she asks him for her husband’s last words, he hides the truth, “the horror, the horror…” and says instead, “The last word he pronounced was, you name.” And so while one character at least is spared acquaintance with heart of Kurtz’s darkness, more than a century since its completion we cannot read the book, or even watch the news and say the same.


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