Friday, September 9, 2011

Camouflage and Patrick Hughes

Patrick Hughes, Vanishing Venice (2007)

For many years, I've been interested in the paintings (as well as the writings) of British artist Patrick Hughes (1939-). As early as the mid-1960s, he began to paint perspective scenes (such as the one shown above, titled Vanishing Venice), not on flat canvases, but on odd-shaped board constructions, as shown in the line drawing above. In the process, he developed a method of painting he calls “reverspective.” In these mesmerizing paintings, features that appear to recede (visually) in space are in fact physically nearer. As a result, as you walk past one of them, it appears to move in astonishing ways (much as did the rotating trapezoid window that Adelbert Ames II invented in the 1950s). You have to experience this to believe it. Fortunately, there are online film clips as well as other notes about these bewildering images.

What does this have to do with camouflage? It has everything to do with a certain variety of disruptive camouflage, called dazzle painting, which was widely used in World War I for ship camouflage. Much as in Hughes' paintings, in dazzle-painted ships, certain surfaces appeared more distant when in fact they were physically closer. The intention was to interfere with the targeting calculations of the German U-boat gunners in their efforts to torpedo ships.

Hughes' paintings are visual paradoxes, a subject that has interested him since childhood. In fact, my first introduction to him was through his writing, not his art. I recall that the first of his books that I bought was Vicious, Circles and Infinity: A Panoply of Paradoxes (co-authored with George Brecht in 1975). In subsequent years, I also found Upon the Pun: Dual Meaning (1978), and More on Oxymoron (1984). Now, he has come out with a new, more comprehensive look at the same subject (a book I highly recommend) called Paradoxymoron: Foolish Wisdom in Words and Pictures (London: Reverspective Ltd, 2011).