George Gittoes: Night Vision

Mitchell Fine Art Gallery, Brisbane

The Artist (1996), a large painting of a harlequin figure, greets the visitor as they enter George Gittoes’s exhibition Night Vision. Hanging in the gallery’s front window this carnivalesque figure, holding a paint brush in one hand, paints cloud-like stepping stones over a dark abyss. As he paints his own safe passage across the abyss he sports a knowing grin, baring sharp teeth. His eyes are masked by a pair of night vision glasses. Upright bullet shells create a ‘city skyline’ surrounding the abyss. Everything in this conflict zone is painted blue and yellow. The artist’s night vision glasses simultaneously act as a mask, a prosthesis, a camouflage and an example of militarised technology. The painting forewarns the visitor that this is an exhibition of many layers, where the topology of contemporary war and conflict is traversed in paintings and drawings that provoke questions. They are ‘stepping stones’ too. The artist-harlequin, an alter-ego self portrait of Gittoes, seems to say hang tight, I will show you the artist’s way into and through the horror.

Since 1985, when he visited Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution, Gittoes has worked as a painter, filmmaker and photo-journalist in numerous war and conflict zones. These include places such as Somalia, Iraq, Congo, Philippines, Gaza, Israel, Rwanda, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since 2011 he has largely been based in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Here, he has set up an artists’ community for Afghans. It is called The Yellow House, after the Sydney artists’ community he set up in the 1970s with fellow artist Martin Sharp.

Upon entering Night Vision the paintings, many large and hung closely, create an immersive environment where the concept of ‘vision’ expands into multiple possibilities; memory, imagination, nightmare, hallucination, militarised vision technology and actually seeing with your bare eyes. Gittoes experienced wearing night vision glasses in 1993 in Somalia when he accompanied Australian peacekeeping forces on night patrols. He describes the effects of the glasses as nightmarish and hallucinatory.1 This experience informs many of the paintings in the exhibition. Some depict figures wearing night vision glasses and others are painterly manifestations of hallucination and nightmare, real and dreamed. Mojo Rising (2009) and Zombie Shuffle (2007) are strangely beautiful examples of the latter. An example of the former is Night Vision Baidoa (1993–2016). Painted with strong blue, green and yellow brushstrokes this painting depicts soldiers on night patrol surrounded by children playing with toy guns. An important war history painting, it channels soldiers’ fears that the disorienting effects of the night vision glasses could cause them to mistake a child with a toy gun as an adult with a real one, and shoot.2 The stuff of nightmare.

In 1993 Gittoes commented ‘People through the goggles lose their humanity—becoming like synthetic computer constructs’.3 The dehumanising characteristics of contemporary war, promulgated via accelerating developments in militarised technology, continue to concern Gittoes. He has witnessed the aftermath of drone attacks, where remote killing is scaffolded by advanced military technologies, digital interconnectivity and dual-use civilian/military infrastructure.4 A recent painting Night Vision 2015 (2015) links night vision capabilities, drones and remote screen-based delivery of war. A neckless head, identifiable as Gittoes with its long blonde hair, features cross-hair marked computer-like black screens painted across its eyes, mouth and an ear. Night vision glasses protrude, two guns act like robotic arms of another combatant, and a peace dove flaps for attention it does not receive. Is the head a metaphor for a ‘decapitated’ conscience? Is it representative of a remote drone pilot’s array of sensor and targeting screens, or is it a victim, the drone’s ‘Gorgon Stare’ night vision surveillance systems reflected in its face? By painting himself as a ‘canvas’ for multiple interpretations, Gittoes presents the role of the painter as a subversive agent.

Gittoes’s hand drawing and painting processes, in their time consuming messiness, re-inject human agency into discussions about contemporary war and its reliance on accelerating developments in militarised technology. His process of drawing in the field, then re-working drawings into paintings completed in a studio, re-introduces human time and touch into a world where the technical apparatus of war is becoming more autonomous.

Night Vision is a survey show powerful enough to warrant national and international attention, particularly in an age where persistent conflict and terrorist threats pervade. Gittoes’s unique experiences over many years, and his reflections upon them, cannot be ignored. Night Vision is a war history exhibition of paintings, drawings and puppets that trace the physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological effects of war and conflict from the latter stages of the 20th century into the 21st, and beyond.

George Gittoes, Mojo Rising, 2009. Oil on linen, 200 x 260cm. Image courtesy the artist and Mitchell Fine Art.

George Gittoes, Night Vision, 2015. Oil on canvas, 152 x 101cm. Image courtesy the artist and Mitchell Fine Art.

George Gittoes, The Artist, 1996. Oil on canvas, 210 x 173cm. Image courtesy the artist and Mitchell Fine Art.

George Gittoes, Night Vision Baidoa, 1993-2016. Oil on canvas, 87 x 101cm. Image courtesy the artist and Mitchell Fine Art.

notes: 

1. George Gittoes, Text written in margins of drawing Night Vision, Pencil on paper, 35.9 x 43.2cm, 1993.
2. Ibid.
3. George Gittoes, Text written in margins of drawing Khats, Pencil on paper, 35.9 x 43.2cm, 1993.
4. George Gittoes referred to drone attacks in ‘Artists Without Borders’ Creative City Sydney, 18 February 2016, accessed 29 May 2016. http://www.creativecitysydney.com.au/blog/artists-without-borders/