Arriving at the Bunker Cartoon Gallery on Friday night, it is immediately obvious that this is to be a very special opening of the latest incarnation of The Phantom Art Show.
The setting is amazing. Tucked into the side of a hill and surrounded by dense trees and vegetation, a Deep Woods feel is evoked immediately. This is only enhanced by the sight of burning tiki torches and the sound of welcoming jungle drumming and bird noises as we approach.
While the grand Skull Cave planned for the Gallery entrance has not eventuated, a dramatic and imposing 12-foot replication of Dick Frizzell's iconic Grieving Phantom is no less stunning. The statuesque figure, inspired by Wilson McCoy's image at the conclusion of the 1943 story The Governor and Suzie has become emblematic of the Art Show, and sets a tone of epic humanity that resonates throughout the exhibition. It is an entirely appropriate welcoming scene.
Co-curators Peter Kingston and Dietmar Lederwasch are among the first to meet guests, along with contributing artists Euan McLeod, Dick Frizzell and Dare Jennings. They warmly greet arrivals, and usher us all into the Gallery. Here we are met by friendly and hospitable Gallery volunteers and staff who hand all guests a catalogue and a Phantom mask. The masks are very popular, with almost everyone wearing theirs at one point in the evening.
Drink tickets and gourmet snack food are handed around, and raffle tickets are selling quickly. Prizes of high-quality prints of the artwork on display mean that the opportunities to win them are snapped up.
Manager of the Gallery, Margaret Cameron, is a picture of elegance and sophistication as she effortlessly and efficiently coordinates last-minute details and movements. Sam Chapman and Nanette Backhouse from sponsors Saso Creative are seemingly everywhere as they meet and greet the many guests and visitors.
The Bunker gallery is essentially two rooms. The antechamber is a large, clean room with high ceilings. The Show starts here, with many pieces hung around the walls. In one corner are the works from the finalists in the saso.creative Phantom Downunder Art Prize. Interestingly, in another corner is more merchandise than has been available at any of the other exhibiting galleries. I make a note to come back to this...
Moving from this entry space into the main Gallery chamber is like stepping into another world - it really does look and feel like you're entering a cave. There is a dark and eerie feeling to the space, brought on by the black ceilings, the purple mood lighting, and the dense camouflage netting that covers the walls.
It's a full house; all 120 tickets have been sold and you sense that not too many more patrons could fit in. The crowd is happy and jovial though, easing past each other to move around the Gallery and enjoy the many and varied Phantom-inspired works. Most of the crowd seems to be Coffs locals and friends of the Gallery rather than genuine Phantom phans, but this has been a common theme as the Art Show has travelled around Australia.
Of course there are exceptions - I spot a couple of fellow phans who I vaguely recognise from their Facebook profiles and suddenly, as though from nowhere, Frew's Glenn Ford appears. There is also a mysterious gentleman who moves through the crowd wearing a hat, sunglasses, a trenchcoat and a scarf...
It's a tough crowd for speeches. They're chatty and excited, but through valiant efforts Margaret, Nanette, Councillor Jan Strong and Paul McKeown are able to make themselves heard. Dick Frizzell is witty and entertaining, and key speaker Dare Jennings (founder of Mambo) is particularly enlightening.
A fun part of the evening is the announcement of the winners of the saso.creative Phantom Downunder Art Prize. The judges have found it impossible to split the finalists in the under 18 competition, and the three of them are awarded as joint winners: Shailey Brown (17) for Smoko, Anastasia Christie (13) for The Phantom and Angus Fraser (7) for Phantom Shaker. The Open Winner is John van der Kolk for the delightful Tuesday is Washing Day. Further details and photos of the winning artworks will appear on ChronicleChamber later this week.
The final speaker of the evening is ... the Phantom himself! Emerging through the smoke that appears from behind his Skull Throne, his impressive physique draws a few gasps. Our hero is usually a man of few words: he says little but no breath is wasted, and this well-garbed cosplayer plays the role to perfection.
After a few wry comments about his history, he calls members of the audience forward to swear the Phantom Oath, and devote their lives to the destruction of all forms of piracy, greed and cruelty.
After the speeches, the mingling resumes and guests enjoy each others' company and the space. The Phantom sticks around for photo opportunities, and my wallet groans as I return to the Merchandise corner.
There is a real sense of the effort that has been required to make the evening happen. Co-curators Peter and Dietmar are more proud and exhausted than excited, with evidence of the strain visible. Dietmar's spectacles have broken during the week and he's only had the time to repair them with tape; Peter's distinctive orange glasses are splashed with paint from the grand facelift they've given the Bunker. They concede that the plan for a Skull Cave entrance had been simply impractical and unachievable, but are justifiably pleased with the final result.
After the Phantom Art Show was forced to share time and space with other exhibitions in Broken Hill and Murwillumbah, it really is refreshing to see an entire evening devoted to the celebration of Lee Falk's character, and the interpreted art of Ray Moore and Wilson McCoy.
All involved at The Bunker Cartoon Gallery: directors, staff and volunteers; and of course Peter, Dietmar and Euan particularly, deserve an immense amount of congratulations for the way the exhibition has come together. The opening night was a grand celebration of this, but even if you missed the evening you simply must see it at this location. The Phantom Art Show has not looked like this anywhere else, and probably never will again.
The Phantom Art Show is exhibiting at The Bunker Cartoon Gallery (John Champion Way, Coffs Harbour) until 21st May 2017.
NB - All the speeches from the evening, as well as the Artists' Talk that took place the following morning, will soon be available via X-Band: The Phantom Podcast.
In the meantime, please enjoy the video below!
Photos courtesy Steve Little, Peter Kingston, Keith Bennett and Dan Fraser.
Videography courtesy Don Hunt.