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Fascination with flight leads to anů ART ATTACK!

Posted 25 January 2010 · Add Comment

What started as a child's fascination with birds and flight has become a major theme for 'Art of Flight' creator David Bent. He spoke to Chuck Grieve about the inspiration and perseverance behind his successful collections.

 

If he thought about it, David Bent could probably trace a personal flight path from birds through model planes and a friend named ‘Mad Kenny’ to where he is today – a popular success and best-seller in the fickle world of art. 

But Bent is too busy to think about it. Of course he’s happy that his aviation-inspired art has captured imaginations and markets around the world, but that pleasure comes mainly from connecting with others. It’s a “happy alignment of interest, art and public appreciation”, he says – and it continues to surprise him because, frankly, aviation isn’t everything.

His home in Wiltshire, where he has his studio and gallery, is a monument to an eclectic mind, an open book of the travels and interests that make him “an artist with a strong niche interest in aviation, rather than an aviation artist” which he would find too limiting in every sense.

The same goes for technique and medium. Bent satisfies his artistic impulse with whatever he considers the most appropriate tool for the job, whether it’s responding to the stimulus of Dubai and the Middle East , celebrating the RAF’s 90th birthday, or indulging in his quirky humanoid Aerobots. The paintings, photographs and limited-edition collages that result, now comprise a substantial body of work and are held in private and corporate collections around the world.

A major breakthrough in his aviation work was being picked up by the Society of British Aerospace Companies – now Aerospace, Defence and Security (A|D|S) which wanted new art when it was moving into new offices in central London. The director general had seen something that resonated in an exhibition of his work at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT).

Said Bent: “The thing I ‘hit’ in the industry is that it’s cutting-edge technology – it couldn’t be more so. And it’s forward-looking, so it needs something contemporary and modern to reflect that.” Among his work now on display at the ADS is a massive 8m x 2.4m work entitled Flight of the Red Arrows along Sheikh Zayed Road in the boardroom, plus another 30 individual pieces.

 

Bent has always had an interest in aviation, thanks to his father, who he describes as “an aviation nut case… an anorak”, and an early love of observing and drawing birds. His father built and flew model aircraft, which he and his brother, Roger, chased through the fields of southern England : two-legged retrievers. Bent became an air cadet in school and logged 18 hours in a De Havilland Chipmunk – his sum flying experience. “I made corporal and caused a fair amount of chaos at various Royal Air Force (RAF) bases around the UK and Europe ,” he said. His brother made a career in the RAF, retiring with the rank of wing commander.

Perhaps surprisingly, his interest in aviation didn’t come out in his art until around 2000. He was too busy exploring his many other interests and commenting, through, art on the social issues of the day – something he continues to do, with current themes such as global warming, genetic engineering and the creep of the ‘big brother’ state.

“I’ve always been conscious of the role of aviation in the modern world,” he said. For the most part it is a benign influence but occasionally events such as Lockerbie, 9/11 and air-mounted military operations remind us of its other face. This drives Bent to his studio. “You can make a case that in such events, aviation plays a central role,” he mused.

 

“From an artistic point of view, I like the atmospherics you get when you leave the ground; the fact that aircraft operate in three-dimensional space where it doesn’t matter whether the horizon is horizontal or vertical.

“And I like the objects themselves – the shape and design of aircraft. They’re generally very appealing. Some, like Concorde, are inspirational: people just liked it.” What interests Bent sociologically is how an iconic leading-edge piece of kit became a popular cultural icon. He sees opening minds through art as part of his role.

“One thing I realised quickly, as my career in aviation art developed, was what a huge subject it is. I’ve just scratched the surface.”

That career started with a visit to RIAT in 1999 with ‘Mad Kenny’, an old friend. At the time, Bent was doing a lot of photo collage work with duplicate prints that he would double, turn and juxtapose for artistic effect. At RIAT, he walked along the static display line photographing aircraft nose-on with a telephoto lens. When he applied his technique of doubling and turning to the resulting prints and achieved “interesting” results. That was the start of his Aerobot collection and “the key that turned the tap on”. All his latent interest in aviation came rushing out.

The following year he exhibited his Aerobots at RIAT where “basically they went down a storm”, he recalled. The quirky anthropomorphic quality of the art – humanoid creatures made from aircraft – caught the imagination. “Part of their intrigue is figuring out what aircraft have been used.” Pilots liked them, took them home in their cockpits and instantly his work was all over the world.

In successive years, Bent’s exhibition at RIAT has become larger and his work more varied under his Art of Flight brand. He likes to explore themes and ideas, rather like a boxer circling and probing with his jab, and groups his work into collections. Art of Flight reflects the breadth of his fascination and has grown to 15 collections with themes now including Aerobots, Red Arrows, Tessellations, Stealth, Aerodynamics, Al Ain Aerobatica, Red Bull, Sky City Fusion and Mirror City Skyline. As well as original paintings, Bent creates art prints in his studio, using archival inks. Editions are limited to 50.

During one of his exhibitions at RIAT, members of the RAF Red Arrows saw his work in the VIP area and invited him to collaborate as the display team’s artist in residence. That exhibition also opened a door to the Middle East , when the organisers of the Al Ain aerobatics show invited him to exhibit in the royal tent.

For Bent it was a pivotal experience. Fascinated by the culture of the region, he immersed himself in Islamic design, immediately recognising common ground. “The basis of Islamic art is geometry, as with aircraft,” he saids. He applied his simple methodology of turning and overlaying aircraft shapes to form secondary and tertiary patterns reminiscent of the pierced stucco and carved wood seen in traditional mihrab and mousharabia screens, and named them Plane Tesselations. These works struck a chord with Gulf viewers at the next year’s Al Ain show.

Meanwhile, he had become fascinated with the growth of Dubai , in particular the architecture of Sheikh Zayed Road . In an example of ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’, he spent half a day in the midday sun photographing buildings north of Jumeirah Emirates Towers until dehydration and “nearly killing myself off crossing the road” forced a stop to his expedition.

But it was worth it. He made collages of architectural features from that shoot, merged them with aircraft and aircraft shapes, and his Sky City collection was off the ground.

“Things expanded from there,” said Bent. Invitations followed to exhibit at the Dubai and Farnborough airshows, the Red Arrows collaboration bore fruit, and his aviation work began finding a wider public.

Bent is selective in taking commissions. “I like to produce work from my own ideas and then take them to the marketplace and hope people will like them enough to want to own them,” he explained. Sometimes in the past they didn’t, as he knows from experience.

Bent has always practiced art, even when not earning a living from it. He did “hundreds” of jobs after taking a degree in art in 1972. He taught the subject for many years to youngsters in north London . He was an early adopter of computer graphics and started a graphic design company as a spin-off from teaching. But the necessities of running a business took him away from the creative side and, after six years, he closed the company and returned to his first love: art.

Bent calls it his second drop-out phase. Determined to do it his way, there were “a few tough years” as he tried to establish himself, but “from 1987 onwards, I have been able to pursue a career as an artist”.

Bent’s collections represent his exploration of a particular train of thought. There are many themes: landscape, travel, figure-based studies, big issues, photo collage and photography – even a collection inspired by interesting stones. Among his interests are travel and exploring. He has been particularly drawn to Asia . “I love its colours,” he revealed.

He admits to being better at starting projects than concluding them. In this light, his collections present the perfect compromise. “They’re works in progress. It’s a process, like life: if you don’t enjoy the process, what’s the point?”

As well as inspiration, Arabia has proven to be a new commercial marketplace. Bent is comfortable with his popularity because he feels it has been achieved on his own terms. “I’ve tried all my life as an artist to keep my integrity intact,” he said.

“No doubt, with aviation, the subject has been helpful commercially. There seems to be a need for somebody with my approach to the subject of aviation, which I classify simplistically as modern contemporary.

“A lady at RIAT once said to me, ‘David, you nailed the niche’. I’m happy with that.”

• David Bent’s art online is found at www.bentartgallery.co.uk

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