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Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery

edited by Paul Barnett

(Paper Tiger, £14.95, 142 pages, trade paperback, published August 2002.)

The Paper Snarl was a fanzine launched by fantasy artbook publisher Paper Tiger to cover scanpublicise its list, but it was always far more than that, and for two or three years (the zine is currently in hibernation) it was consistently one of the more interesting reads for those seriously involved in the genres of the fantastic. Somehow it always seemed to strike the right balance between informality and deep insight: reading the Snarl was like eavesdropping on professionals relaxing in each other's company and talking shop. The artist interview was always central to this, and the somewhat misleadingly-titled The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery brings together 25 of these interviews (with another volume due in 2004). Despite my grumbles outlined below, these two volumes will form a significant snapshot of fantasy art as it stood at the turn of the millennium.

As ever with Paper Tiger, the book is nicely produced, and each interview is accompanied by a number of illustrations -- the generous space given to these works perhaps explaining the book's title. The selection of artists ranges from the legendary to those less familiar (to this reviewer, at least), but it also encompasses a wide range of approaches and styles, from the digital gloss of Fred Gambino (who, for me, is outstanding at his best but also inconsistent) to Ron Tiner's comic strips, Anne Sudworth's wonderfully atmospheric pastels, Lisa Snelling's mixed media sculptures and John Harris's stunning combinations of big thinking and intense mood. Two real discoveries for me here are the powerful yet intimate character studies of AB Word, and Martina Pilcerova, whose gritty, atmospherically-lit works are an antidote to the clinical gloss that's the established norm in fantasy art. Both deserve Paper Tiger books of their own.

The danger with a book like this is dilution of effect, and The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery doesn't entirely escape from this problem. Some of the interviews are too short: Brom's, for example, is a particularly staccato series of questions and answers, with little in the way of follow-up -- a questionnaire rather than a fully-rounded conversation. The format works far better with subjects willing to answer at length. Judith Clute, for example, barely needs the interviewer's promptings at all, and is both insightful and self-effacing about her work. She tells of a publicity letter from The Women's Press telling her husband John Clute how they were repackaging Joanna Russ's books "without those tacky sci-fi covers"; apparently, he took great pleasure in replying to inform them of the identity of the artist... (Incidentally, Paul Barnett describes those Judith Clute covers as ground-breaking.)

There are many such stories in The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery, including Joe De Vito's rather gruesome account of his early artistic efforts, sculpting sharks or squid, inserting them down a Play Dough whale's throat, then peeling layers off the whale until he could see the sea creatures within. Aren't children lovely? But still, there's an underlying sense in the book of too much packed in too thinly.

The other area of frustration in this volume is in its selection of artwork. There are some superb pieces reproduced here, but also some gaping holes. Fangorn talks about his work on David Gemmell's Legend graphic novels but we don't see any examples; he talks of two favourite pieces of work but only one is included. Barnett tells Frank Kelly Freas "'s your black-and-white work that really sends tingles up my spine" but no examples are included. The rather brief Bob Eggleton interview concentrates on his The Book of Sea Monsters and Greetings from Earth but ... no examples. Everything hangs together so much better when text and images are related: the discussion of John Harris's The Zig-Zag Path makes much more sense because that painting is included. One suspects complex issues of rights must dictate the selections of artwork to an extent, but it's frustrating when text and illustration don't correspond.

The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery's breadth of coverage is both its weakness and strength. A bit like those wallpaper samplers hardware stores used to stock: you want a roomful to get the true effect, but only get a small sample. Give me the same range of artists, but allowed two or three times as much space and I'd be happy! Ultimately, I think the strength wins out: I'm left with the impression of a lot discovered from this book, and a number of artists I will look out for in future. The judges' commentary on Tom Abba's Paper Tiger Award makes the point that in a field wedded to pushing and breaking boundaries (although that's another debate), so much of the art is safe, "locked into recycling themes and motifs" that have changed little over the decades. The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery demonstrates how this need not be the case.

Review by Nick Gifford

Randy M Dannenfelser's alternative review of Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery is available elsewhere on this site.

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