Boy George tells Laura Davis about his world premiere photography exhibition taking place in Liverpool next month
FOR someone who is in many ways an invention, Boy George doesn’t half seem genuine. He’s sitting next to his long-time friend Mark Wardel (aka the Wirral-born club painter TradeMark) on a black leather sofa in the Hope Street Hotel, and having a right old laugh talking about the past.
They are in Liverpool for a meeting about their art exhibition, This Way Out, which opens next month as a highlightof the city’s annual Homotopia Festival.
It will be Mark’s first major collaborative show and the world premiere of George’s “photo/graphic” artworks on public display. But in a way they have been collaborating for years, ever since the singer posed for a portrait in 1979.
“It made me feel like I was famous before I was,” he says. “At that time we were all a bunch of attention seekers anyway. Our lives revolved around image and clubbing and making a name for ourselves.
“If someone paints you it makes you feel super-glamorous, even though you were living hand to mouth really. Most of us were on the dole.”
When he met Mark, in Covent Garden’s famous Blitz club, George was a dreamer who looked like a star but wasn’t yet, and was impressed by
anyone who was “actually doing something”.
Having graduated from Wallasey Art College the year before, Mark had already painted Visage’s Steve Strange. He has since worked with Andy Warhol, Kylie Minogue, Holly Johnson and Marc Almond among others.
“When I discovered the Blitz club I thought I’d found my perfect subject, that I wanted to record the people – they all looked incredible,” he says.
“George’s day-look was a traffic-stopping ensemble let alone what he looked like at night. There was no way if you were an artist you could not
be drawn to that subject.”
The portrait hung above the singer’s brother’s mantelpiece for many years but was lost when he moved house and now exists only as a polaroid. But Mark has painted him many times since, as well as creating album art.
“If you get him to paint you he always makes you how you want to look rather than how you actually look,” he says. “He’s not Lucien Freud.”
“I’m the anti-Lucien,” injects Mark.
Their art work has this in common – it is about artifice rather than reality. George digitally manipulated his photographs and, under his friend’s
influence, has begun to add layers of paint.
“It depends on the subject,” says George. “Sometimes you think they’ve got a really characterful face so to over airbrush them would lose the essence of who they are, but if you’ve got a drag queen that’s plastered in make-up there are no limits.” (“And they’d kill you if you didn’t airbrush them,” adds Mark.) “I’ve just done a photograph of William Baker, who styles Kylie, as a boy and a girl,” continues George, tapping his mobile phone to bring up the picture .
“ It’s called Don’t Tell Me What to Wear because he’s always dressing other people up. I said ‘how would you feel about doing drag and if you don’t like it we won’t use it’, but I knew it was going to be good as soon as we got him in the wig.” (Mark: “I bet he didn’t take too much persuading.”)
This will feature in the exhibition alongside other work based on their shared interest in constructed identities – paintings, “photo/graphics”, masks, installations and a cabinet filled with ephemera (“I like that word – ephemera,” says George, as if tasting each individual letter) such as polaroids and flyers and make-up.
Mark has exhibited in Homotopia before and it is his connection with Liverpool’s festival of LGBT culture that has made this exhibition happen. But it seems fitting that it should take place in a city that knows only too well the importance of reinventing an image.
George’s own David Bowie-inspired reinvention was a reaction to growing up in suburbia on the outskirts of London and realising he was different.
“I didn’t really think much of the way I looked when I was younger,” he says. “I knew I was gay and when you’re really young you don’t necessarily know there’s anything odd about you but everybody else notices it before you do so you kind of get singled out in a way.
“For me, music and dressing up and clubbing was my escape from suburbia. It was the light at the end of my tunnel.”
When he discovered make-up “it blew my mind”. For years, especially after Culture Club hit the charts, it felt too much a part of him to be seen without it.
“When I was 20 or 25 or even 30 I never would have done an interview without my make-up on, but now I just save it for special,” he laughs (today he is relatively low-key in a black suit, T-shirt and furry hat – but he is still someone you’d notice walking down the street).
“There was a point when I’d be staying in a hotel and I’d open the door and my hand would have come out and grabbed the room service. No-one could see me without my slap on.”
People have told him his image has got in the way of his creativity, he adds, but he doesn’t think the two can be separated.
“Do I think it’s more important than the music? No. Do I take it as seriously as people might think I do? Probably not. I’m probably not as vain as people imagine.”
Liverpool Post, September 19, 2013