Cosplay at the 2017 Geneva Gaming Convention

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I’ve been looking forward to the Geneva Gaming Convention for a very long time. In happy anticipation, I drive down to Palexpo. I’m in heaven. Surrounded by hundreds of gamers, all there to celebrate their love for games. I particularly enjoy the retro corner. I grew up with many of these games. GoldenEye! Street Fighter! But, my favourite thing this year? Cosplayers!

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In case you missed it: Cosplay (costume play) is a rapidly growing hobby-verging-on-culture in which the participants dress as specific characters from films, games, cartoons or books.

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Cosplay has multiple long roots that can be traced to the carnival dress of the 15th century, the costume balls of the 19th century and the “fancy dress parties” that were in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The first big leap was when attendees at 1930s science fiction conventions increasingly turned up in a pertinent costume. As a hobby unrelated to a specific event, it began to boom in 1980s Japan. No surprise there!

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Now, cosplay is much more than a costume ball writ large. It is globally connected being fuelled by social media, dedicated websites and specialised conventions. A hijab wearing Captain America even made the BBC news!

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There are cosplay competitions too. Cosplayers are judged on: resemblance to the original character in terms of appearance; quality and details of the costume and props; character portrayal and performance; stage presence and connection with the audience.

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An undercurrent of cosplay is based on sex appeal – by choosing a particularly alluring character – and changing gender (crossplayers!) This, unsurprisingly in today’s non-fantasy, pc world has precipitated fierce debate about what is and what is not appropriate.

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I’m a role-playing, hack-n-slash kinda guy, but I’ve never quite had the nerve to dress up as a character from a film, game or cartoon. I’ve always admired those that did. They really throw themselves into it.

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What is it about dressing up as a fantasy personage? I admit, it kind of appeals. Maybe next time. Maybe in a Vault 13 jumpsuit. Yea!

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Revisiting David Stacey’s Natural World

Scientific latin flows easily as painter David Stacey and I talk about frogs in his gallery-studio in Kuranda, Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

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Turning from the subject of Litoria xanthomera breeding in chlorinated swimming pools we move to view his painting of Litoria rothii. This fabulous rendering of a Northern Laughing Tree Frog clinging to a lichen covered tree with its sucker-like toe pads is simply exquisite. The identification points and character, or ‘jiz’, of this species, one that I know well and have painted myself, is captured to perfection. The fine, warty detail, camouflaging patterns and striking yellow and black ‘flash markings’ are, to me, deliciously amphibian. I want to touch it. I notice other frogs in the original works, reproductions and greetings cards around me. They all have the same effect on me.

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Orange-thighed Tree Frog – Litoria xanthomera

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Northern Laughing Tree Frog – Litoria rothii

I have written about David Stacey before. His work reveals a man deeply connected to his subjects; namely, the environments, ecologies and species of the world’s most ancient rainforests which are found only in this part of Australia. This connection seems to lead naturally, in his words, towards ‘obsession’. The sheer volume of his output since our last meeting does indeed testify to an obsession.

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Pandanus fruit segments, beetles and other matter

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Gmelina fasciculiflora

David is generous with his time. We talked about technique and style, composition and reference material. His style is unique; a ‘Stacey’ would be recognised anywhere. His latest major exhibition, featuring 70 paintings, was held at Brisbane’s prestigious Redhill Gallery during November 2016. The exhibition consisted mainly of his fine, pen and ink drawings which he then “colours in” with wonderfully opaque acrylic washes overlaid, where necessary, with thicker acrylic application. (All the works shown in this post are from the exhibition). We also discussed problems that being ‘artistic’ can bring!

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Amorbus Sp – Davies Creek

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Resting – Azure Kingfisher

However, it is David’s sense of composition that particularly impresses me. How he thinks his trademark compositions through to completion is a marvel. He balances colour, tone, form and space. He leads the eye; sometimes by not colouring or leaving something out. It is as if he considers your peripheral vision as well as your focus when composing. Clever! Some of his paintings leave me imagining what might be there that he has left out. This is the same feeling I get in the rainforest where so much is hidden in the green, luxuriant half-light.

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Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

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Emerald Dove

This compositional prowess effectively renders each painting far more than just a portrait of a species. (My own paintings, however hard I try, always end up being just that). David’s works stand alone as accomplished creations, pleasing to the eye, where the subject matter of the painting becomes simply one element among many that make up the whole.

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Peacock Spider – Maratus speciosus

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Harlequin Bug – Tectocoris diopthalmus

David has another ‘style’ which is extraordinary. He describes it as ‘surrealist’. It is these works that hold me in fascination as I explore them. They are conglomerations of images: landscapes, creatures and plants, abstract patterns and even maps. They are dream-like, thematic and thought-provoking and are woven together with his accomplished, compositional artistry.

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The sky has fallen

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Fragmentation

Our conversation was far more than just an interview for this post. I learned stuff! I also identified our shared obsessive need to portray the natural history that fills our minds with interest, respect and appreciation. We have in common those lonesome journeys and vigils in the wild places where we observe and photograph reference material and add to our knowledge and understanding of the wild. We talked of the difficulties of being obsessional ‘artists’ and how our work is profoundly personal being often difficult to market. At times, we have both ‘prostituted’ ourselves to create for a commercial market driven by conventions, expectations and desires of others. More than once David used the expression “money is corrupting”.

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Double-eyed Fig Parrot

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Zodiac Moth – Alcides metaurus

These days in Kuranda are my last in Australia. I am about to migrate back to Britain after four years of trying, unsuccessfully, to assimilate into life here. But David Stacey is where he should be. As a man so connected to the rainforests of his home he clearly understood my similar connection to the natural history of Britain and Europe. We spoke of the recognised phenomenon where an Aborigine may die if removed from his ‘country.’ In this extraordinary painter-naturalist, I found a kindred spirit who understood and acknowledged my expression, ‘homesickness is a gentle term for grief’.

A Letter to Tracey Emin

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

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Tracey Emin “My Bed,” Installation, 1998

Dear Tracey,

I know you’ve come in for quite some stick for “My Bed.” Is that really art? Anybody could have done that! How was that shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize? etc. etc. I have to admit I was a bit baffled myself. (Was it really worth that much?) But as I tootled happily around Tate Britain the other day, I happened upon “My Bed.” I found myself intrigued, then mesmerised and ultimately quite moved.

The blurb on the wall says “By virute of bringing the domestic into the public sphere without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.” I’ll say! I stood and looked. I walked around. I then realised that “My Bed” was boring into my heart. The mess of the soiled sheets together with the bedside scut of discarded underwear, fluffy toys, well-worn slippers, vodka, cigarettes and KY recalled a whole raft of good, bad, sad and indifferent moments of my life. So many things and times I might – or might not – want to leave behind! And then, to my surprise, I found the sad, saccharine squalor of it all quite eye-watering. In fact, it made my day. So, thank you, Tracey. I hope you’re doing OK now.

Lots of love,

Bonnie

PS I really went to Tate Britain to see the Frank Auerbach exhibition. Not my cup of tea!

PPS As you know, “My Bed” is installed next to two Francis Bacon paintings and a series of your own drawings. I’ve never liked FB’s paintings.

PPPS I need help with your drawings.

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Tracey Emin “I could feel you” Gouache on paper, 2014

Meeting Susan Gunn

I am due to meet Susan Gunn at the opening of her new exhibition at Mandells gallery in Norwich. I look around. The canvases are stylish. The whole show is calming. The press dossier tells me that Susan was born into a Bolton mining family in 1965 and that she gained an Art Degree at Norwich. It details countless exhibitions, commissions and prizes including, in 2006, the Sovereign European Painting Prize.

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Friends and admirers arrive. Journalists vie for Susan’s attention. She has that rare quality of being able to soak up admiration whilst making it all feel like friendship. Fortunately for me, she is generous with her time. I tell her that Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the narrative behind beautiful stuff that creative people do. She allows me to dig a bit. Her own narrative of the journey from Bolton to Mandell’s is recounted with lucidity and modesty. It is an eye-watering story of talent and success winning over loss and sadness.

A “special gift for art” was noticed by a school teacher. She went on to, and soon dropped out of, Bolton Art School. She set up a successful wedding dress company. She fell in love. She moved to Norwich. She married. She became a student again. She became a mother. She lost her daughter. She suffered an immense grief. She managed to pick up both herself and her family life. She then returned to painting.

Her most recent accomplishment is a commissioned 20 metre work for the Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia (“one of the greenest and most sustainable buildings in Europe.”) “Terra Memoria I S,” a smaller version, is part of this exhibition.

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“Terra Memoria I S,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 200 cm x 40 cm (approx) 2015

I ask Susan what three words apply best to her work. “Earth, infinity..” she reflects for a few seconds “.. and death.” She talks about how her father couldn’t remove all the coal dust from under his fingernails, the near-spirituality of whiteness, her ritual polishing of a certain grave stone and how, with her work, she aims to forge a link between age-old techniques, things primitive, nature and contemporary painting. Everything is rational. There is no artspeak.

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“Divided Ground: Square II,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 150 cm x 70 cm (approx) 2015

All her paintings carry a visual theme of natural colours with polished surfaces riven with cracks. The appeal is immediate; some fundamental matter is fractured but nevertheless holds together. There is a promise of recreation; of good things. The contrast between the clean crisp lines, the colours and the organic, complex forms is mesmerising. I am drawn into a kind of imaginary space where Susan insists that I stop and reflect on the cracking paint of a lovely old shed or sun-dried riverside mud. My imagination advances; the cracked paint and the fissured mud are cleanly cut into precise rectangles on her studio floor.

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“Divide Ground: Orchid Yellows,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 70 cm x 70 cm (approx) 2013

I ask Susan about her influences. Top of the list is Alberto Burri who executed a number of “cracked” paintings in the 1970s. The process that Susan has mastered involves age-old materials and techniques. She employs a traditional gesso made of chalk and an authentic glue binder. Its propensity to crack is usually regarded as an undesired flaw. However, she remembers the thrill when she first noticed the complex beauty of fissures appearing in her paint. This was her moment. This was a recall of past, earthy and heartfelt things. Since, she has learnt how the apparent randomness of the cracks in her gesso can, to an extent, be pre-determined by the tension in the canvas, the amount of water in the mix and the ambient room temperature. The natural pigments include coal dust (unsurprisingly,) cochineal, lapis lazuli and suffolk linseed. The final stage involves grinding and waxing the surface by hand.

As we talk, I look around at her paintings. The highs and lows of her life, the evolution of her process and the aesthetic outcome of that process are three intertwined and interdependent strands of one uplifting narrative; one strand can only be appreciated in the light of the other two. Inevitably, I become another admirer of Susan Gunn and her work. Meeting her is a rare privilege.

Twenty years of Pop Art at Galerie ID

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of Galerie ID in Carouge, Geneve. To celebrate, Isabelle Dunkel is planning a sparkling retrospective from 23 September to 17 October. Beautiful stuff by all the major pop artists she has hosted here will be on display. A friend whom she admires greatly is Roger Pfund, creative giant and the only living artist whose work has been exhibited at Geneva’s Museum of Art and History. It’s a fitting tribute to Isabelle that he put together her invitation.

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I call in to see Isabelle. I get a warm welcome as usual. But this time, it is her I want to interview. She’s not keen to talk about herself. She obviously thinks the story of la galerie is more interesting than the story of ID. (This could be hard work!) So… Born in Paris (I didn’t ask the year.) Traveling childhood (11 different schools.) A year in England (loved it.) Trained in languages (four.) Married young (a banker from Geneva.) Grown children (two.) Why pop art? (A hint of enthusiasm for this conversation.) Always loved “art.” Went to the USA in 1992. Saw and fell for the work of James Rizzi. Started a small collection. Met the man himself and offered to represent him in Switzerland. The story of Galerie ID starts here.

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James Rizzi “Girls Like Flowers” 1997

Girls like flowers! So take some along to the birthday girl whose efforts to bring Rizzi’s work to this town were laughed at. “He’s too American!” “It’s just commercial!” And of course… “It’s not ART!” But she had the last laugh. In her first five years of business she sold more than one thousand pieces of Rizzi’s wonderful, whacky stuff. On the back of this success her rapidly expanding portfolio grew to include names such as Robert Indiana and Alex Katz. She now runs the only gallery in Geneva dedicated to Pop Art and is an ardent promoter of limited-edition prints as an art form to be valued.

I ask Isabelle what she sees as her greatest achievement. The answer is surprising and immediate with neither preparation nor pretension. She is proud of the accessibility of what she shows. Drawn by pop images, people who would never think of going into a gallery come in off the street. She wants her exhibitions to brighten the day of anyone and everyone. Popular art! Popular appeal! And now she has really warmed to her subject. I dare to ask what makes her heart sing. Do I see a blush? Pop music!! Beatles? Yes! Rolling Stones? Yes! Michael Jackson? Fabulous! Who else? Supertramp! Abba? Yes! Daft punk? Of course! Taylor swift? Not my cup of tea! Mrs Dunkel is just Miss Pop at heart.

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Last year I had the privilege of meeting Jeff Schaller at his second exhibition at Galerie ID. He pays tribute to Jasper Johns – one of the doyennes of Pop Art – who famously said “just take something and add to it.” Let’s acknowledge what Isabelle Dunkel has been doing with passion and success for the last twenty years. She’s taken James Rizzi and added accessible Pop Art. Enjoy!