NEW WRITING: The uber-pop gamescapes of Mauro Ceolin

BY: Matteo Bittanti

POSTED: Sunday 1 February 2004


As (never) seen on the PC screen: the visual culture of video game designers. Introducing Ceolin’s “GamePeople.”

Mauro Ceolin is the Italian answer to pop-art powerhouses such as Takashi Murakami and Julian Opie. Oh yeah, baby. Superflat is “tired.” Ultraflat is “wired.” Ceolin, aka “popular culture enters the video game arena.” The ‘flatness’ of his portraits evokes the two dimensionality of the game characters in the age of cell shading. If Warhol gave Pop Art a soul, Mauro Ceolin gave Will Wright an aura. And if Andy Warhol glorified Marilyn Monroe, Mauro Ceolin transformed Richard Garriott into a rock star. After all, game designers are the pop icons/idols of postmodern times. The paradox, however, is that although video games are our new mythologies, their creators are depicted by Ceolin as ordinary beings, not as charismatic semi-Gods. The portrait of the artist as a game designer.

Game People (2002-2004) is an ongoing series of portraits of game creators who have helped to redefine video games in the last thirty years. Ceolin’s works defy complexity. His images are full of youthful and comics-like energy. His aesthetics rely on pastel colours, opaque and solid, simple yet intriguing. His style rejects the illusion of depth and perspective. Forget overlapping layers: Ceolin’s GamePeople are smooth and strictly plain. He fuses the material and the immaterial, the real world and the game (ever expanding) universe. Ceolin uses Flash technology to generate the game designers’ replica. His portraits are a tribute to the world of virtual illusions. There is no ironic detachment here. Rather, sincere admiration.

Ceolin draws inspiration, ideas, and imagery from game aesthetics and iconographies. His style of portraiture is direct and disarming, often misunderstood, sometimes even naively dismissed, a fate common to many great works of art. The portraits--the consistently limited colour pattern, the simplicity of the subjects’ appearance -- remind me a little bit of Alex Katz’s oeuvre.

But while Katz's paintings illustrate a very small, intimate circle -- that is, his wife, Ada, son, Vincent, and friends -- Ceolin’s chooses some of the world’s most influential fantasy makers. In other words, Ceolin speaks to the world through the ‘worlds makers’ (see Richard Garriott’s mantra/motto). Ceolin’s interdisciplinary approach to art culls from the ever expanding popularity of game characters, but also addresses the role of their creators in the age of peer-to-peer and “free” downloads. More importantly, he maintains a distinct cultural autonomy. He cannot be easily labelled and framed. He is fluid, just like a game character. He captures the flag, i.e. the aesthetics of the technological age like no one else, yet refuses the eye candy style of Murakami’s anime pictures.

P.S.Ceolin is also a game designer. The very same tool he uses for drawing, Flash, can also produce videogame. See, for instance RBAatari, RGBinvaders and RGBtetris at www.rgbproject.com. Ceolin is also a virtual sculptor.... Like the ideal gamer, he reminds me of the Wagnerian complete artist, but also a critic, architect, and, ultimately, a human being.

In his paintings, game creators and game characters occupy the same plane of hyper-reality. Wright, a post-modern Robinson Crusoe, holds a Sim in the palm of his hand. Sometimes the game designer is smaller than the creature he has designed. Fumito Ueda and Ico are juxtaposed. Shigeru Miyamoto draws Super Mario on paper but seems unaware that his creation is looking at him behind his back. Miyamoto--Ceolin seems to be suggesting--exists just because of Mario and not vice versa. Mutual look, the game gaze lost in Pac-Man’s maze. Ceolin challenges us to see any portrait not as a definitive version of an essential human being but rather as a representation of selected attributes (whether physical or symbolic, media-created or “real”) that have been edited and constructed to tell one of countless possible stories.

Another fascinating aspect of Ceolin’s portraits is the consistently limited palette, the Pepto-bismol pink, white, and, most of all, the ubiquitous green backgrounds. No surprises here: green is inextricably linked to the ludic dimension. It evokes the card tables, pool table felt, football and soccer fields and bowling greens. It is also the colour of money--and video games is exactly where the money is today. And let’s not forget the so-called “green room” where TV performers and guest go to relax…

Ceolin's work, in a sense, pays a tribute to the American paint-by-numbers craze of the Fifties and Sixties. The homage is even clearer in his landscape series, which imitates the design of game environments. Once derided, paint by numbers canvases are collected by a small number of discerning connoisseurs in the United States and represents a kind of folk/pop art phenomenon. One might be tempted to see a connection between a mass produced product--namely paint-by-numbers kits which gave its consumers the illusion of creativity--and the societal function of certain computer and video games.

In the early '60s, Roy Lichtenstein transferred comics into canvas. Today, Mauro Ceolin relocated videogames onto a different screen. Ceolin, like Murakami, celebrates popular culture rather than condemning it. He realized long time ago that that contemporary art is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, while video game speak a global language. Playstation is the new Esperanto. Nintendo is the world’s currency.

Each portrait begins with a photograph of a game artist, usually found on the net. Google, the modern oracle, gives artist clues and hints about what really matters. The artist’s role is to reinterpret that evidence, giving it a new meaning. The photographic image is reproduced by Ceolin with the aid of an electronic pen and altered with software (Flash) that hones in on its graphic essentials. The screen is his canvas; the mouse is his brush. The result? Colour saturated images that are disconcerting and attractive, clear and ambiguous. Like video games, his art combines aspects of both abstraction and representation.

In a sense, the GamePeople series is a simulation of portraits.

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