Roberta Gentry

Roberta Gentry is an artist whose work explores aspects of language and systems of organization. Gentry’s work questions ideas about abstraction, specifically the fantasy of literally translating form into meaning, and the destruction that can arise during that translation.

Gentry received her MFA in 2014 from the State University of New York at Albany and her BFA in 2007 from the University of Arizona. She was one of five recipients of the College Art Association’s Career Development Fellowship in 2014, and also received the University at Albany’s Distinguished Master of Fine Arts Project Award. Her work has been show in numerous group shows including at Monte Vista Projects and the Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Los Angeles, and Collar Works in Troy, NY. She has had solo shows at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, NY, and at Stanica Cultural Center in Zilina, Slovakia following a residency funded by a travel grant from the US Embassy in Slovakia. Her work has been featured on the cover of Apogee Magazine and written about in 1 Op Collective blog.  She currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Written language is inflexible, it effectively crystallizes a concept by setting it permanently into words. In my work, I seek to reverse this process, to begin with language or specificity and drive it back into obscurity. This manifests as various sets of modular shapes, abstracted from written language, which can be manipulated in response to the environment of the painting. The only content left in these shapes is the vague recognition that they somehow resemble written language in their organization and interrelationships. 

Working with collections of shapes inevitably leads to ideas of separation and compartmentalization. The compartments I use are either filled with invented populations, or they are so complex that they’ve rejected those populations. Rather than creating claustrophobic and confining environments within the work, I make celebrations of separation and systems of organization. 

For me, abstraction is mainly the act of reducing the specificity of something so that it communicates its basic nature in a more universal way. When emptied of inherent meaning and specificity, there is a great deal of freedom in abstraction. The act of assigning meaning is a top- down and immobilizing process, which is something I aim to avoid for the most part. The components of my paintings are similar to tombstones, erected to signify the absence of something. It’s that absence that allows them to be individuals, to be new and freshly encountered.

Q&A with Roberta Gentry
By Emily Burns

Can you talk a bit about the LA art scene? What was it like to move there from New York?
I’m a pretty recent transplant to LA, so I’m just now starting to get a feel for what the art scene is like. My first impressions are that there are a lot of artists taking things into their own hands, starting their own spaces, selling their own work, etc. I’m in love with the landscape and climate here also, I felt like I won the lottery last winter. No snow.

Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement with Monte Vista Projects? How did you become involved as a curator?
A friend told me about Monte Vista soon after moving here, they’ve been an artist-run space in my neighborhood for the past 7 years. When I got in touch with them they were at a place where they were looking for new members, so I decided to join. There are 8 members right now, and we basically get together every month and look at proposals, vote on which ones we want to show, and everyone does their part to run the space. 
Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice? What is the most important part of maintaining a successful studio practice?
I’m always trying new ways of working, in grad school my methods were very complicated, and involved lots of different processes. I had a whole invented alphabet I was working with. I have a much smaller studio now, and less time to work in it, but those constrictions pushed the work into a really good place I think. Flexibility is so necessary as an artist, if you have a smaller studio, you have to make smaller work. If you have less time to work, you have to rethink your processes to make them quicker. 
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin? Do you keep a sketchbook/does drawing play a part in your work?
I usually plan paintings out pretty thoroughly before starting work on them, but they always change a bit once I get going. I can’t just start on a painting without feeling pretty confident that it should exist. I keep a sketchbook, but I don’t really carry it around with me anymore, it stays in the studio for when I’m in the planning stages of something. 
Do you ever experience the equivalent to “writers block” for artists? If so, how do you get in the creative mindset and flow?
I find that usually those kinds of blocks come from trying to make work that’s too many steps ahead of where you left off, and then you’re left completely confused because you’ve lost your place. That’s when I get stuck. I’m always reminding myself to not interrupt one process for another and to finish what I start.

How does your artist statement function for you? Do you think it is an important element in the practice of being an artist?
For practical purposes, yes, I think having a well-written statement is important. But I think the main problem with them is bad timing, since they’re written before or after the work is made. Whenever I’m writing a new statement, I feel like I’m trying to record a dream, and all the important pieces are really fuzzy by the time I get a chance to write them down. They’re completely necessary, but they can also be dangerous. If you’re not careful you’ll end up asking yourself while you’re working if what you’re doing fits your statement. 
Are there a few artists that you are looking at currently?
I just saw Rebecca Morris’s show at 356 Mission and found it incredibly beautiful. Lately whenever I need a push I turn to Philip Taaffe or Agnes Martin. 
Has your work been influenced by other disciplines that aren’t rooted in the visual arts?
Oh definitely, geology has been a big influence for a long time. I’m also interested in collections and how they’re organized, architecture, and carpentry.
What do you listen to while you work? Is boredom something you have to contend with in the studio?
If I’m doing something really monotonous, like cutting 1200 shapes or making stencils, I’ll listen to an audiobook or a podcast. But mostly I like quiet. I think I work better without the emotional distraction of music. Boredom isn’t really a problem, although impatience might be. I get so curious about what something is going to look like, I think I’ve ruined a few things by cutting corners and not being able to wait and let it take it’s course.  

Anything else you would like to share?
Thanks for putting together such a gorgeous magazine!

Thank you for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!

To find out more about Roberta and her work, check out her website!