Jasper Knight, Apache, 2008, plywood
"Our whole life is but a greater and longer childhood," Benjamin Franklin
The title of this show, "Apache," refers to the AH-64 Apache advanced military attack helicopter, armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles, Hydra rockets and the most powerful Gatling gun ever created. This all-weather day-night helicopter was designed specifically to fly low to avoid detection and has an infrared suppression system to combat heat-seeking missiles. Although the first prototypes were tested in the mid-1970's, they are still in use today. During Operation Desert Storm they were responsible for the destruction of over 500 tanks and numerous armoured personnel carriers along the so-called "Highway of Death". Like the M-16 rifles of the Vietnam War, the Apache helicopter has become a classic of military industrial hardware.
The centre piece of Jasper Knight's extraordinary new show is a 1:2 scale model of the Apache assembled out of 37 pieces of inter-locking high-grade marine plywood panels. In Knight's transfiguration, a high tech killing machine has been lovingly recreated as a giant children's assemblage toy: measuring 7m long, 2m high, 1.5 m wide, with a blade-span of 6.5m. Artists have traditionally adopted contrary attitudes towards the products of industry. But Knight's attitude to the Apache is neither that of the anti-machine Luddite nor is it especially celebratory of a "machine" aesthetic. The aesthetic at issue here is, rather, the aesthetic of toys: bright, stylised and designed according to the imperatives of play.
Knight based his model on a 40cm replica of the Apache assembled from 93 readymade pieces of balsa. So he has not really tried to make a replica of the Apache itself but something closer to a copy of a copy of the Apache - which cannot but remind one of Plato's conception of art as a copy of a copy of a copy of Reality. Partly as a result of this conceptual displacement almost all associations with death and destruction have been erased in favour of a smooth, clean-looking, elegantly contoured construction.
What is most striking about this object is its materiality, the weight, density and tensile strength of its thick unpainted pale wooden panels. We are invited to imagine how they were made and put together. Knight thus challenges the time-worn distinction between art and craft since, intriguingly, art here is internal to an investigation of craft. The model is well-made but not highly crafted. There is something delightfully carefree about the manner of the assembly and whilst Knight has carefully chosen the panels to recreate the visual impression of the small-scale model on which his is based he has made many changes and modifications. So the assemblage becomes subtly expressive of its maker, the way art is supposed to be.
At almost 20 times the size of its balsa counterpart, Knight's model Apache inevitably invites comparison with the oversized works of the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg. There is the same spirit of fun and pleasure in the material qualities of the piece and the familiar defamiliarization of seeing an ordinary object at an extraordinary scale. But in contrast to Oldenburg, the emphasis here is on the making - its possibilities, necessities, and limits - a theme that is also evident in Knight's urban industrial landscape paintings and previous constructed objects (e.g., mixed media cicadas, a plywood Ferrari, plywood and MDF dinosaurs).
Downstairs Knight has also produced four framed collages of the Apache, which brilliantly continue his exploration of materiality and making and an interest in blurring of traditional boundaries of art/craft, sculpture/painting, and material form/representational content. The collages give the impression that they have been made helter-skelter out of materials right off the studio floor: copper and brass plates, bits of plywood, lino, acrylic, balsa, old rulers, MDF pegboard etc. But these collages are more sculptural than, say, Kurt Schwitters' "Merz" collages, and more humorous. They look less like killing machines than a series of wonky frozen frames of choppers in flight. In their multi-layered materiality they exhibit an apparent ease of construction, as if the random bits and pieces of which they are made had magically assembled themselves - perhaps parodying an old idea of art as coming from above or beyond (say, one's Muse). But they are more deliberate and knowing than first impressions suggest. Knight's painterly skills as a colourist are discernible. And by including parts of the balsa model used in the material production of the large-scale Apache model the collages are like archeological sites, embedding aspects of their own history. This, too, goes with a further idea of art, that art begets art endlessly... but, given the brutishness of matter, never effortlessly.