Remember when life was measured in 2MB floppy disks? That all feels so ridiculous now --using something ten times bigger than a flash drive to transfer a thousand times less information. But there's also something sad about the life cycle of technology. And for London artist Nick Gentry, who was born around the same time the floppy disk became ubiquitous for personal use -- the early '80s -- the 3.5-inch pieces of plastic are symbolic of the harsh world of obsolescence.
The Central Saint Martins graduate paints somber, Generation X portraits on canvases made from floppy disks, whose metal hub serves as the subject's startlingly dilated eye. Adding to his haunting renderings are the handwritten labels on the disks and the way the disks' original blue, black, or gray color contributes to the composite form. His first U.S. solo show opens at the Robert Fontaine Gallery this Thursday. Read on for our Q&A with Gentry.
New Times: Of all the obsolete technology - zip drives, etc. - what is it that draws you to the floppy disk?
Nick Gentry: The floppy disk represents the idea of physical media. They were so prevalent, but each one also had the possibility to be completely unique. For me they were mainly games and for others they might have been important documents, pictures, love letters and more. I'm only guessing this from the labels that I've read on each one, as the handwriting provides clues as to what lies beneath. I love the fact that all the information is still there in a dormant state, like a digital fossil.
Beyond other art, where do you find inspiration in terms of music, film, literature?
For me science fiction films like Blade Runner lead the mind to ask questions, which sparks off the imagination. I always listen to music when I paint and some of my favourites are Massive Attack, Burial, Bon Iver, and John Frusciante. Inspiration seems to be an unconscious cloud of everything from distant memories to current impulses.
Are the characters in your portraits real or imagined?
I use images of real people as a reference, but prefer to keep the identity secret. This allows the media to be focal point and in some way it allows me to compose a new identity from the disks, like a patchwork of memories.
Can you describe your process? Do you assemble the canvas from disks and then paint? Or is each disk painted and then assembled together?
The first thing I do is construct the canvas by sticking the disks down onto a wood base. This is a very selective process as each disk needs to be placed in the right area according to tone etc. After that I paint all the edges, creating a silhouette figure. The final part is to paint the details of the features, but only where necessary, which allows the labels to show through.
There's a sad nostalgia in your subjects' faces. Is there something to the fact that you were born around the same time as the floppy became ubiquitous for personal use and that it is now extinct? Can we measure our mortality by the life cycles of technology?
It's possible to draw a comparison with human mortality and the obsolescence of technological products. Our society seems to revere the beauty of youth, and often people seek to somehow hang on to it. I don't look at things in a nostalgic way though, as we obviously can't stop or reverse change. At the same time there is everything to love about the constant flux of our existence. I think people remember, but only when prompted and that helps us connect some of the dots of progress.
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Do you find yourself scrutinizing current material culture for its potential as a future medium? Are there any specific objects that hold significant aesthetic/conceptual promise?
I guess I am like everyone else in that I am entirely cocooned by technology now. I have an iPhone, which I love, but I am so completely connected and reliant upon it that it may as well be an internal part of me! Overall it takes time for me to process these feelings and later I reflect on what is happening. I think that the mistake can come from making that judgement too soon. The pace of change is so fast now, but everything takes a certain amount of time to settle.
This is your first solo exhibit in the U.S. Any thoughts about how the American art community, and more specifically the Miami art scene, might react to your work?
So far my art is being really well received in the U.S. -- especially Miami. Probably more so than any other country, even in the U.K. so I am really looking forward to it. I don't know exactly what the reaction will be like at the show but I definitely have a good feeling about it.
Nick Gentry's first U.S. solo show opens at the Robert Fontaine Gallery (175 NW 23rd St., Miami) this Thursday with a 7 p.m. reception and will be on display through September 2. Admission is free. Visit robertfontainegallery.com.