Winter 2007 Profile

Sharp intelligence

Wellington artist Regan Gentry is a visual conjurer whose work is both visceral and smart.

At a certain time of year Wellington’s gorse-covered hills blaze yellow as this universally hated plant bursts into flower. A chance remark about the beauty of these yellow hills set local artist Regan Gentry pondering. For Gentry, whose three times larger than life-size deck chair, The Limousine Lounger, wowed visitors to Waiheke Island’s Sculpture on the Gulf in 2005, artworks are often language driven, taking the form of visual puns prompted by chance remarks. His latest series of finely crafted sculptural objects made from gorse, Of Gorse of Course, is no exception. A sharply intelligent body of work made from this most unlikely art material, the series investigates this plant’s dubious position in our national history and answers Gentry’s original question, “Can something that is a noxious weed be transformed into a valuable resource?”

As much a loving meditation on this perverse material, its history and what it says about national identity, Of Gorse of Course, had its roots in the Hutt Valley where the hills turn yellow, yet came into being last summer in Invercargill where Gentry was the William Hodges Fellow. There he spent several months learning all there is to know about gorse at the sharp end a�� that is battling through dense impenetrable fields of it, harvesting it with a chainsaw and machete, dragging it back to the studio and then milling, drying, hacking and carving it into a series of sculptures that will be shown as a single body of work at TheNewDowse and the Sarjeant Gallery.

Initially introduced to New Zealand as a way of demarcating property for settlers who used it as an inexpensive a�?live fence’, gorse has become an environmental disaster, colonising large areas and proving impossible to eradicate.

Gentry’s gorse works evoke failed experiments and idealism gone badly wrong. Live Fence quotes the history of the plant in post-colonial New Zealand. Tall pickets, like those used by settlers, are carved from long gorse trunks, which retain their original organic, twisted shapes. They appear ominous and distorted, poised to multiply and colonise the space, and they are supported by three strands of fencing wire strung taut across a corner of the gallery. In this work it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see a battle between culture and nature, with the latter taking the upper hand. The work also alludes to the ugly aspects of colonisation and land acquisition.

Oh Dear, a pair of deer antlers mounted on the wall, is ripe with contradictions. On one hand it represents a trophy, symbolising machismo and the conquest of nature, yet the title and the fact these antlers are carved from a noxious weed undermines the heroic associations and introduces an element of doubt and uncertainty.

The cluster of objects titled Chop Chop a�� a tree stump, meat cleaver, axe and lamb chop a�� refers to the felling of trees to make way for agriculture. Visually striking because of its smooth silky surfaces and wide colour variations, Chop Chop is layered with associations and word play, hinting at the environmental costs of economic development. Home Improvements, comprises two sawhorses, a saw blade and a bowl of gorse seeds in an exquisitely carved bowl. It alludes to the efforts of the settlers, battling the harsh environment they encountered and trying to make it their home.

Like those settlers Gentry himself can be seen as a pioneer, choosing to work with such an uncompromising material, which begins to shrink and twist rapidly after it has been cut. And in a strange way the physical challenge he has set himself parallels that of the settlers whose exhausted ghosts inhabit the series.

“When I started working with gorse I found there was nothing written about it except how to kill it and the breadth of the problem,” he says. “As a wood it has some really annoying qualities a�� it is very hard and tight and if you sharpen it to an edge it will cut you.”

Clearly as excited by the technical challenges as well as the conceptual aspects of the gorse series, he comments, “Doing these sculptural projects you have a licence to investigate and experiment. Gorse was something that hadn’t been covered as a topic or a material before and so I knew I was going to become an all-powerful a�?doctor’ of gorse. There were few precedents and no great history of working with it.”

Gentry is understandably chuffed that the series has been purchased by Phil Price and Connells Bay Sculpture Trust Project.

Gentry’s career is studded with visual puns and word gags that are so smart and funny they don’t wear thin. For him engagement with a non-art audience is vital.

“The works re-contextualise language from an art perspective. I believe the beauty of a work comes from an artist realising an idea and the viewer entering into that created reality,” he says.

His 2003 work ArrRghT, made for the Wellington Fringe Festival, comprised 350 light bulbs forming the word a�?arrrght’. These were installed three metres under water and this sunken scream alluded to the complications of executing such a project.

“I’ve always enjoyed issues, technicalities and problem solving and I’ve found I can interpret that kind of challenge into an art system. When I was at art school I went hard out learning how to use the machines. That opened up heaps of avenues for me; I’ve always been interested in knowing the principles behind materials and how to work them. Physical change is what excites me.”

Thirty-one-year-old Gentry, who works full-time as an art technician at Massey University’s School of Fine Arts, is no stranger to alternative art spaces and fringe festivals. Despairing of finding a dealer to represent him, he devised the ingenious Foot in the Door project in 2004.

“This came at a time when I had been doing lots of low-budget things and was getting pretty pissed off. I’d done about 50 or 60 Foot in the Door works and was thinking, a�?This is stupid; it hasn’t led to anything a�� nobody has taken me up.'”

Gentry wrote to dozens of galleries requesting they allow him to install a 12-inch tape measure or ruler in or near the door of the gallery. Prompted by a fellow artist’s remark about the difficulty of “getting a foot in the door”, the work has been the perfect calling card for Gentry, who can now legitimately claim he has work in 87 galleries in New Zealand and Australia a�� Peter McLeavey and Ray Hughes included!

Conceived to test the boundaries of gallery procedures and to gently subvert the hierarchies inherent in such systems, the work succeeded because Gentry’s request was easy to accept, requiring no major commitment from galleries, yet allowing the artist to list them in his CV. The irony is of course that these works are often unobtrusive or even invisible.

Gentry grew up in what was then a small orchard district a�� Haumoana in Hawkes Bay a�� and while at school dreamed of becoming a painter. But in 2000 he emerged from his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Otago as a sculptor with a strong interest in conceptual art and site-specific sculpture.

His work has always been aesthetically diverse. While completing his degree he made Black Rainbow, a sculptural arch made from 145 tyres installed on an empty site in Dunedin where a much-loved theatre had been knocked down by developers to make way for a tyre shop. The public was enraged by the loss of the building and the site stood empty for seven years. Like much of Gentry’s site-specific work, this piece spoke directly to the history of the site through a carefully considered choice of material and form. This is where Gentry’s work gains much of its torque.

His recent installation, Skeleton Trees a�� a permanent work at Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke Island a�� also engages directly with its site. Continuing the rural farming theme explored in the gorse works, these three tall, twisted, snarled trees are made from no. 8 wire. The trees, which took two and a half weeks for Gentry and fellow artist Kaleb Bennett to build, echo the extensive revegetation programme the owners have undertaken on their coastal property.

“The interesting technical aspect of that project was: how do you make wire do something it wouldn’t normally do? And you do that by crimping it together. With two of us working on the project we could do more than you can in a solo situation. I made a crimp; I made thousands of staples from stainless steel welding wire: I made a jig and modified a pair of pliers, which I used to crimp the staples together.”

The wire is stabbed into pipes in the ground and crimped together in bundles of five strands, then woven together in a random way similar to the way tukutuku panels are made. Like the gorse project there was no precedent for fabricating the works in the forms Gentry envisaged.

“People have worked with wire, making objects but this was big (five and a half metres tall). It was hard work and it was really painful. After three days of working with the pliers my hands were numb and buzzing constantly. I had to take painkillers every morning.”

Later this year he will travel to Wanganui for a six-month residency at Tylee Cottage. It’s clear from his track record that Gentry will continue to compel and delight us with art that is conceptually and materially rich. He is a consummate visual conjurer who is alert to the possibilities of materials a�� always working with what is there in front of him, yet so often overlooked.

Virginia Were

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