35-year-old British artist Nick Gentry takes your unwanted floppy disks and film negatives and turns them into eerily beautiful conceptual portraits that bring the viewer closer to the blurred lines between reality and illusion, exploring the way we, as a society, interact with technology.
Using the boom in cyber-culture to publicly obtain materials for his art, Gentry puts a microscope on exactly the aspect of society he makes use of. In his early days, Gentry often left his paintings in public spaces for passers-by to take home. He has since gone on to exhibit at the Robert Fontaine Gallery in Miami, and currently has a specially commissioned sculpture on display until 6th September 2015 at the Barbican Centre in London, which will be auctioned later that month at Christie’s to raise money for Cancer Research UK.
Speaking about his film montages with PETRIe Special Projects and Managing Editor, Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes, Gentry takes us inside his world.
Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes: How, why and when did you decide to become an artist?
Nick Gentry: I didn’t really make a conscious decision about it. Drawing and paintings was always something that just came naturally to me from a very young age. I had a lot of encouragement at home and at school, so in that respect I was very lucky. It gave me a lot of belief and focus from the very start.
I studied at Liverpool [College of Art] and then went to [Central] St Martins to study for my MA. I feel that a lot of what is learned on the road to becoming an artist is outside of an academic environment. In my opinion, the beauty of art comes primarily from self-expression and feelings rather than anything too intellectualised.
CS-H: According to your website, your work "explores the areas where reality meets illusion, while drawing on references from consumer waste, to pop culture and found art.” How do you feel your art accomplishes this?
NG: Well, I’m always questioning everything. I’ve always been that way and it was definitely a problem for a few of my teachers at school. I often can’t be told; I have to experience things in order to understand them. Our ideas of reality vary from person-to-person and I’m seeking to express my version of reality to others.
I use discarded materials often as I feel they have an energy. Something that has existed and served a purpose comes charged with a meaning before I even begin to use it in my work. Why start with a new white canvas when the world is already full of wonderful, mysterious objects?
CS-H: What message are you conveying to your audience?
NG: There’s no set message or intellectual way to view the work. It’s simply a stimulus for feelings. If I try to tell people about what they should be feeling then I have merely dictated something to them and the work is somewhat neutralised. If I leave it open, then it can be uniquely personal to the viewer and limitless in its interpretation.
CS-H: I love the audience participation element of your pieces (via them sending you materials) - what was the driving force behind this?
NG: The socially-sourced aspect to my practice started off from necessity, but then I started to realise it was quite a unique and inspiring way to create art. So I took that idea and cultivated it using social media, so that it grew and I now receive many donations from people all over the world. I often send things back in exchange too.
CS-H: Could you take me through the steps to complete one of your portraits? How long does each one take?
NG: It’s a cyclical process, rather than the traditional linear one and because of that it's not easy to define a clear starting point. It could be that each artwork actually starts with others (usually a complete stranger that I have never met) rather than myself. The contributions and participation of the public are a vital part of the process. I regularly use social media to invite people from all over the world to send me a whole range of obsolete media (computer disks, film negatives, x-rays, etc) to my studio. From there, the long process of sorting these materials into different types begins. This helps me to work with fluidity later on when it comes to composing the materials in my collages. So in that sense, there is no clear time frame for each piece.
CS-H: What are your plans for continuing this work in the future?
NG: I’m happy with the way this process works for now. In the future, I could grow it further and I will be looking to people to come to my exhibitions with items to contribute. I’m finding that I have to be quite specific with my requests though. The medium is central in my work so I’m not looking to use just any material.
CS-H: If not art, what would you be doing?
NG: It’s not something that I really consider. I’m living for the moment and making sure I’m doing the things that feel right. If art somehow disappeared as an option, then the world would be a very dull place! I have no talents in music but I would have to throw myself into something creative.
CS-H: How do you define success?
NG: Being open to inspiration from all angles and allowing that to fuel passions. Anyone that is curious about life, and has the ability to draw energy and enthusiasm from that, will succeed.
Words: Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes
Artwork: Nick Gentry