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Doubting My Way To Fantasy Art in Blackburn
exhibition review by Steve Sneyd
I'd seen mention of the Fantasy Art Exhibition in Blackburn weeks before, and was immediately tempted. Then the doubts set in. Would it turn out to be hype, and be, in reality, a grand total of half a dozen Victorian fairy paintings from the Alderman Whatsit Bequest, allowed a brief glimpse of daylight after a century in dusty vaults? Would the dreaded Arriva trains, our local service, currently Britain's worst, get me there, or strand me there if it did? Would the gallery prove to be shut, the announced opening days and hours proving economical with the truth?
So I hummed and haaed till the very last day, Saturday 8th September; the sun shone, assisting decision, the purple-heather-crusted, dramatically towering, sides of the Cliviger Gorge between Yorkshire and Lancashire, seen from a train which, amazingly, was on time made me feel that the scenery made the trip worthwhile, whatever the Exhibition was like; and, once in Blackburn, the Tourist Information Office, easy to find from the station, featured a woman helpful enough to photocopy a plan of the town centre for me at no charge. I still managed the idiocy of asking a passer-by for Museum Street, while standing at its corner immediately under an unnoticed street name plate saying just that - but even that, I felt, was worthwhile, since I must have made their day by confirming the lanky view of folk from Yorkshire.
Blackburn Art Gallery & Museum was open - another doubt laid to rest - and a large poster just inside the entrance pointed the way clearly towards the Fantasy Art Exhibition, also on the ground floor.
Getting to it meant passing what, although not part of the exhibition, was probably the most fantastic thing of all there - a group by of life-size figures by South American sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco called Man And His Sheep - several stupy women with a variety of weird expressions staring at the back of a ritualistic figure with a blood-covered left hand hanging by his/its side, the head of a sheep, its black wool set like permed hair, black close-fitting horns topped with a red bathing cap, and, most bizarrely of all, wearing small red bathing trunks.
The Fantasy Art Exhibition itself was in a large, windowless gallery, not brightly lit but with light well focused to make seeing the individual pieces of art strain-free. An introductory panel told you that it had taken four years to assemble the work displayed, and challenged visitors to guess which of the works had involved computer generation, and which not. At once, more doubts set in - would I pass this test? In the event I never felt sure in any individual case, and eventually convinced myself that it didn't particularly matter, anyhow, certainly not to a layman like me, there to look at pictures, not attempt something beyond me - the study and analysis of technique.
There were also useful individual introductions to the various artists represented, including quotes from them (and indications which used computers, although as most seemed to use both approaches, this didn't offer many clues to passing the implied exam!).
I started the journey round the exhibition with the work by Chris Moore, eye hooked by the display of books with covers of art also represented by the full-size originals - it was fascinating to see the difference made, particularly the liberation from title and author lettering which let the work 'breathe'.
Of Moore's work, the Gardens Of The Moon centred on a large castle my first chance to test out another of my doubts - would I, as so often with fantasy art seen in the past, be maddened by the Disneyesque implausibility of any castles included? Perhaps this is where the computer has made a difference, since the note about Moore said he made extensive use of computers - that pictures of genuine castles, scanned in for digitalising, would have brought more authenticity - since this one, although its gate arch was implausibly wide for an actual defensive structure, was otherwise convincingly genuine-looking, its style North African and concentric, a series of walls each completely enclosing the next, higher, inner one.
His Subterranean Gallery, a red futuristic copter flying between tall buildings and below a yellow rather glove-like spaceship, a cover for Sir Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel depicting a gold eye-cum-light underneath a huge futuristic ship up at which a lone spaceman peered, and Ninisha's Ship - under a vastness of starry sky, a bomb shape hurtled towards a vast eyelike target rather like a Jupiter storm - stood out, but, as a Philip K. Dick enthusiast, I was particularly interested in a small selection of Moore's covers for works by him.
For Beyond Lies The Wub, mushroomy towers were spattered across a red sand landscape inscribed with the twisting path of a river; near the front a small flying machine hovered - not specifically Dickian as against generally science fictional, but not at odds either. The A Scanner Darkly cover featured a lit bulb curved via twisted string out of distorted room/star ceiling, while blue petals fell through air to cluster onto an up-thrust hand psychedelic enough, and more specifically Dickian, I suppose, though still lacking, to me, in the dark amhiguity truly needed.
To front We Can Build You, Moore had created a California-ish photorealist scene, juxtaposing conventional palm trees and church with two futuristic houses, one mushroom like with a huger pillar shape dwelling beyond; in the air, a flying saucer hovered, watched by a woman with an electric socket in her back and purple plastic strips in her hair - of the three, this to me was nearest to being in a Dick-world.
Jim Burns, who described his own work as 'photoreal' on the intro text, and stated that all was trending towards digital art, was another who came up with a technically fairly authentic castle, albeit implausibly overhung into space on a rock projection. This rock overhang, in fact, was the only real resemblance to author's own description of what the picture illustrated, The House On The Borderland. Extraordinarily, there was no mention in the caption of the local link - that William Hope Hodgson had not only lived in Blackburn, but based his description on buildings there.
Burns' Spectres Of Dawn was noir-ishly eye-catching - a rabbit creature faced a messily evil man, a doorway confrontation ignored by more conventional people in a room beyond.
His Bios presented a vast, deliberately artificial-looking landscape: foreground plasticky dragonflies hovered over a luridly false-looking plant, while jungly hills brooded beyond. O Pioneer was rather cluttered surrealism: in a sort of funfair, slugs, distorted bat-headed creatures, and a fur-clawed thing capered below a huge spiked plastic wheel.
For A Handful Of Men 4, Burns came less interestingly into line with genre convention - using, as with several items in the exhibition, a frame within frame effect, with smaller illustrations in the interspace, this had its central figures staring over intermediate mountains at a distant mega-tree, its shape reminiscent of the nuclear mushroom cloud.
Leo Brown and Tim Perkins of Morpheus Animations, Blackburn, presented horror, humour, and humorous horror, often achieved by caption/picture contrast, the jokes tending to the one-take rather than depth: a tree saying "Go West Young Man," a barbarian warlord with nubile woman and pointy bat-ear dwarf sidekick getting the caption "So You Want A Loan?" A dragon picture captioned "the dragonflies are big tonight," and, to me the nearest to genuine sardonic humour, a warrior with snake extruding skull hung at his waist, captioned "No one start without me." Most vivid, and mercifully without a jokey title, was a close-up take of a sword stabbing into a dragon's eye.
Fred Gambino, from Derby, who stated his work to be now 50 percent computer-based, included an atmospheric Titan's Sky, the visual poetry of Against All Odds - a man bound to a gold wheel floating above ground against a background of gold towers, and the strong, if somewhat too deliberately significant/symbolic, Edge Of Light, a winged figure whose sky was filled with the bellies of huge spaceships.
His Eudone had an edgy, neurotic power - a futuristic woman laid back leftwards of a control panel marked with contour-map lines against a star-spatter sky. His Second Contact - a green lizard creature against cliffs and space rockets, seemed a pointless reworking of pulp cliché, and I also cavilled at the jarring photoreal faces.
Russell Morgan of Kettering's Tree Dweller was memorably irritating, to me - a fiddly sub-Beardsleyesque tree man. Chris Pepper's Let's Rock, despite the silly title, had a lurid energy: zombie-ish armoured men, guns firing, emerging with battle dinosaurs from a vast four-horned ship outlined against a glowing sky. His Amazon, more predictable, set her before a two-headed dragon and an eastern city.
As local artist Oz Ali had put four years into assembling the exhibition, he was certainly entitled to include himself; and had exercised admirable restraint as to number. His works tended to a somewhat undeveloped air, as if he hasn't yet found a truly individual style. His Sinder (a winged creature, its lower part flame), Warlords Of A Heavenly Rank with its Celtic style patterns, the rather clichéd Death Church - a cross twisted into a distorted face, and Blood Milk & Sky's evil baby, all caught the eye briefly. More interesting was his Demoness, a split face, half eye and horn of fire, half intricate wrought iron-like patterning.
Steve Stone was another for the plausible castle test - his Memories Of Ice cover merged bits of various real German castles to make a fairly authentic whole, though the human figures here seemed corny, while Dark Spell had convincing enough castle towers as backdrop to a gripping wizard-faced creature of swirling dust below a clump of face-wearing rocks like a clustered throne. His Dune Towers and City Of The Dead were both dramatic, his Nexus, captioned as digital - a rare instance where I didn't need to try to guess forgettable, his Silverborg with its rib-cagey swirl had more impact, and Wasp Queen, although looking derivative of Arcimboldo, compelled by its strong central 'face'.
John Ridgway, who described himself as predominantly a comics artist, had three which stood out: Mothman, huge-winged, red-eyed, atop a car; Visitation, black and white, a saucer over a dome, both dwarfed by a huge rocky world in space behind; and Saturn Moon, its rocket echoing the rock shapes of a vast moon all but touching the rings.
Les Edwards' work was generally OTT, to me, really melodramatic horror illustrations, including Don Sebastian - Vampire, with a candle dripping like blood down a skull on a desk, the noir-ish Ghosts And Grisly Things, with its in-beckoner, Aztec Sacrifice, a supple woman on top of a pyramid against emptiness and, for me his most effective, if still blatant rather than subtle, Tapping The Vein, a fat man pulling back his shirt to reveal numerous red mouths each overstuffed with teeth.
The dark, windowless room housing the exhibition, although spacious enough to make it easy to look at the work from your choice of distances, particularly as there weren't many other visitors, had nevertheless brought on a certain claustrophobia after an hour or so. As an airlock back to the outside world, I finished my visit by looking at a small display by a local artist of trompe 1'oeil work in an adjacent room. These exercises in making the two-dimensional appear as solid objects, although not particularly special examples of the genre, worked well as a bridge from gleaming illusions of 'Otherwhere' back into Saturday shopping centre Blackburn.
Doubts that the trip had been worthwhile - no. Doubts as to whether there were any of these pictures I'd have liked to live with on my wall remained - but then that was not their purpose, they were made to be shrunk to half their size, have titles added, and be used to sell books to a market wanting the comfort of familiar genre clichés, preferably garish and luridly employed. So the remarkable and abiding memory is how much skill and variety the artists had brought to employing those limitations as strengths rather than weaknesses, and how successfully, in at least a few cases, they had managed to bend, if not break, those marketing-led rules.
My last remaining doubt - what would happen on the return journey? Well, Arriva at the last minute cancelled the train I'd planned to get, without even a bustitute, so I got to see, in two contrasting pubs near the station, faces that would have been useful models for fantasy artists still using non-computer approaches - in the first, amid the dark noise, visages still distorted by the horrors of the Saturday shopping experience they were drinking to forget; in the second, quiet and deserted, two barmaids as fantastically elegant and artificial looking as any of the dream women of the Exhibition's works. The next train did arrive, only a little late, and did complete its journey almost on time and with free entertainment, albeit not provided by the management but by football fans on full song all the way. For them, as much as for the fantasy artists of the Exhibition, the 'real' world was safely held at bay: there was no trace of doubt in their voices as they chorused - "everybody hates us and we don't care."
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