Art ON!.. Nick Gentry Uses Obsolete Technology To Create Emotionally Vulnerable Portraits

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Amid the extremely narcissistic, Internet-fame hungry, social media-obsessed age we’re living in, British artist Nick Gentry counters those elements with his strangely beautiful and humanistic portraits.

Repurposing technological refuse such as 35mm film negative strips, floppy disks, x-ray prints and cassette tapes, Gentry creates soothing analog experiences for the viewer through his artworks, pieces that are laced with introspection and self-reflection and possess an elegant quietude.

In his latest solo exhibition, "Psychic Compound," at the newly revamped C24 Gallery, Gentry presents a stylish collection of uniquely crafted portraits mounted on light boxes that illuminate in more ways than one.

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Nick Gentry. Metronome, 2016. Film negatives and acrylic paint on acrylic sheet with LED, mounted on wood panel, 55 x 39in. (139.7 x 99.1cm) Courtesy of C24 Gallery and the artist.

The exhibit, which marks his debut with the gallery, explores human connectedness, remembrance and nostalgia within the unrelenting, digitally oversaturated world of the present. The works, which mostly feature ethereal female subjects, are constructed from sourced materials made by anonymous donors from around the globe that piece together a psychologically compelling narrative of human solidarity. 

Born in London in the early 1980s, Gentry expertly toggles between two realties, the one that existed before the Internet became a popular phenomenon, and the tech-reliant one we live in today. He astutely ties elements of identity, consumerism and cyber-culture into the scope of his work.

Konbini chats with the Central Saint Martins alum for a deeper conversation about “Psychic Compound” and other facets of his artistry.

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Nick Gentry. Metronome, 2016. Film negatives and acrylic paint on acrylic sheet with LED, mounted on wood panel, 55 x 39in. (139.7 x 99.1cm) Courtesy of C24 Gallery and the artist.

Konbini: Talk to me about the premise of your current show, "Psychic Compound" at C24 gallery.

Nick Gentry: There is no set prescribed way to interpret or understand the show. It’s completely open for each viewer to make of it what they will. Many people at the show asked me, "who is this person in the portrait?,” which is a normal question within the confines of traditional portraiture – but with my work, I would like it to be something that escapes simple definition. You’ll notice that the expressions and emotions are delicately poised in the work. That level of subtlety means that it’s not possible to clearly define "who" or even "what" each subject is.

The reason for working this way is that the portraits are created and formed by many people. Gathering the obsolete media allows me to take these shared histories and combine them as one entity – my feeling is that the true substance of the work is found within this process. The faces are just masks over the rich composite of information that is embedded within the media.

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Nick Gentry. Profile Number 14, 2016. Film negatives and acrylic paint on acrylic sheet with LED, mounted on wood panel, 55 x 48in. (139.7 x 121.9cm) Courtesy of C24 Gallery and the artist.

What led you to repurpose outdated technology to create these emotionally vulnerable portraits?

"Emotionally vulnerable" is an accurate way to describe them. No human can survive alone in this world, and we are by nature extremely vulnerable beings, both physically and emotionally. We try to pretend this isn’t the case, and the prevailing aspect of our culture is to increasingly show the exact opposite ideals; success, power, strength, fame, etc.

All of this is of course enabled and exacerbated by the rise of social media. We now have the tools to continually present that ideal virtual version of ourselves (all measured up against the competition). That goes hand in hand with the process of obsolesce, both from a technological standpoint and also metaphorically, as the weak are cast aside and forgotten about. Now that we all have digital photography, what use are film negatives?

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Installation view of "Psychic Compound." (Photo: Samantha Blinn)

Your career started in street art, but how did you evolve into your current practice? 

I used to leave my paintings around the streets in East London as a way to get my work "out there." It’s a nice feeling to give things freely to random people (without pressing it upon them!). It’s also a very useful way to build the momentum of an artistic flow, and I recommend it to young artists as a way to get started (it’s useful to experienced artists as a way to unblock any creative challenges, too).

I never classed myself as a street artist, gallery artist or anything in particular. I just flow from state to state and adapt to my current situation, which is guided mostly by intuition. Social media helped me to get my work exposed to galleries, and for now, I am working within that setup. I’m just in the middle of my first solo show with C24 Gallery in New York, so it’s been a wonderful journey so far.

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Installation view of "Psychic Compound." (Photo: Samantha Blinn)

People from around the world donate the materials you work with. This detail adds a level of human connectivity to your work, subliminally we are all connected somehow. Can you expand?

If you look at the world from any angle, it’s undeniable that we are all connected. It can sound a bit far-fetched to say this, but that is only because it’s not often fully considered. We are taught in school that "this is a pen, this is a book, this is an apple, etc.," and understandably that often leads to a separatist, egocentric view of the world. I like to look at things from all angles and say, perhaps, this categorizing system is a necessary illusionary framework that we have created in order to make sense of this world.

Looking at it a slightly different way, we could say that all of these "objects" are constantly moving and merging with each other (speed up time and you will see that process happening more clearly). No matter how much we try to place a rigid order on our world, it will always merge and naturally break down through entropy. Once that illusion is lifted, we can easily see that all is essentially one.

Physically, we cannot exist separately from other beings as we are all made of the same material. We cannot feel something in isolation as we are always linked and collectively sharing our experiences of the world.

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Installation view of "Psychic Compound." (Photo: Samantha Blinn)

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Installation view of "Psychic Compound." (Photo: Samantha Blinn)

You’ve described your work as "social art from the obsolete." How does that tie into the current social media age we’re in?

I use social media a lot in my work. It’s a useful tool that allows me to connect with people and encourage them to take part in the artistic process. People now want to be involved in art – and art is opening the door to them.

Whilst making these new ways of working possible, this technology has also conversely rendered many things obsolete, and I find it especially interesting to look at something as humble as an old film negative with fresh eyes. I contend that with the passing of time, as we tip from the analog into the digital, it’s becoming an artifact of some anthropological significance.

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Nick Gentry. Composition Number 2, 2016. Film negatives, x-ray and acrylic paint on acrylic sheet with LED, mounted on wood panel 73 x 48in. (185.4 x 121.9cm) Courtesy of C24 Gallery and the artist.

What are your thoughts on Brexit? On a micro level, how do you think it will affect the artist community in UK?

Art goes on, regardless of the politics at the time. It’s clear that worldwide we are living in a time of great unrest, and it’s not easy to live without fear and anxiety. It is, however, impossible to make forward-thinking, positive decisions when they are based primarily on fear, so we must find ways to be more positive and liberate ourselves from its clutches. Overall, there are many ways to digest such changes in the world – let it all be fuel for artistic expression.

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Nick Gentry. Composition Number 2, 2016. Film negatives, x-ray and acrylic paint on acrylic sheet with LED, mounted on wood panel 73 x 48in. (185.4 x 121.9cm) Courtesy of C24 Gallery and the artist.

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Installation view of "Psychic Compound." (Photo: Samantha Blinn)

"Psychic Compound" will be on view through September 2, 2016, at C24 Gallery in New York.

Jasmin Hernandez is a native New Yorker with a deep passion for visual culture and a rich background in the arenas of fashion and magazine publishing. Ms. Hernandez is the founder of Gallery Gurls, where she covers the contemporary art world with a strong focus on female, queer, and artists of color. Her writing on art & culture has been published in The Huffington Post, Vice, Remezcla, etc Visit and follow on Instagram & Snapchat @gallerygurls.