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Ian Berry is a UK based textile artist who coerces denim fabric to create mind blowing portraits and landscape studies that are incredibly realistic, exploring themes like American nostalgia and contemporary intimacy.
How or where did you learn your learn how to make your art with denim?
Officially I am self-taught, I never turned up to art school, instead I went direct to Uni to study to go into advertising. The course being very conceptually creative. On the side I had this idea to work with denim. It was still very much the early days of the internet and remember looking up if anything had been done, and it hadn’t and there were no ‘make art in denim for dummies’ books, no YouTube how to’s etc. I had to make a technique which to this day I am still pushing and learning new ways to use the denim. When using the denim, I started to realise my relationship with the material but then even more important, when first showing people, others people’s relationship with it.
Do formal concerns, such as perspective and art history, interest you?
Being a Yorkshireman I grew up with the shadow of Hockney everywhere and always remember watching programs of him talking about perspective. I’ve got to know him over the last years and now have sat listening to him just talk to me directly about perspective and it’s crazy. I’m there trying to take it all in while thinking, ok, I’m sitting with my hero. I cheat my perspective, as what is lost online is that my work is 3D, sometimes, 15 layers of denim making up the piece. I also build up the base, so it goes into the picture, so forming a canvas that comes forward at the side, sometimes 2 or 3 inches. Obviously, the layers of denim, along with my camera work plays with the perspective too. David Hockney says now that all perspectives are wrong, that if you’re in a gallery and walking to a picture, it’s like the only right perspective is that one angle where you are looking straight on at it. I found that so interesting along with his latest work. I’ve always wanted to make it feel like you could walk right into mine.
I’m a lot more interested in modern and contemporary art history. In fact, in truth, I got back into art in the early 2000’s by the attitude of street art, I nearly became a street artist with denim. Denimu was my name. I also thought I would go more abstract with my work, but then felt this challenge to make photorealism with denim. Using all the bits of denim that I used to use to go ‘hey, look this is denim’ to now hide it is denim and blend all the bits together. Sadly, sometimes it’s too successful and people don’t realise and think it is painted. With photorealism of course I love the works of Richard Estes. I love to challenge myself to make denim shine. With the portraits sometimes I try to use the denim like a painter would use a palette knife.
Do you have any secrets in your work you will tell us?
Sharp scissors and hard work.
How do you hope history treats your work?
Great question. While I’ve been doing this for 15 years, I only see it as the beginning, so I hope I have a lot more to give future history. I hope history sees through it ‘being made in denim’. Yes, in the early years that got me a lot of press and interest and all the brands wanting to work with me but I believed in the long term, and wanting to be an artist first and foremost. I love people making work out of different materials like my friend Max Zorn with packing tape, Mark Evans with etching into leather and Benjamin Shine with tulle, amongst many others. It’s quite common now to see – ‘look at this in a strange material’ – but you have to remember twenty years ago you didn’t really have art like that. We all had an idea, but then perfected the execution. Pushed it way passed being a gimmick.
It’s like now how people look at Warhol and many great artists, they judge them by today, and not the time the work was created. Warhol had so many ‘post Warhol’ artists and especially over in the USA I see a lot of work in the fairs flooded with work that is ‘inspired’ by Warhol, it may look like it, but kind of misses the whole reason why he did it.
So, with mine, I hope people will see the connections in my work, recording social issues of the time. At the end of the day, I’m portraying contemporary life in the material that I think represents our time more than most, especially in urban environments. Denim and jeans. The fading fabric of our urban environment. When anyone sees my work in real life, I feel as good of an artist as any, but in secondary, I don’t. I want to leave behind a legacy of work so as many people can see the real thing as possible, for me there is no better feeling than seeing people see my work in a collection all together and physically seeing the real thing. They connect to it so much better in the settings they were made for. My work isn’t really social media and instant gratification ready for this online world. In many ways, I don’t want it to be. Even though it is fundamentally about, community.
You make the point that you’re “not a denim artist” – can you elaborate on that point for me? (I might be ignorant to the wider issue!)
I think it came from a couple of different angles. Years ago, I was on those social media sharing pages (prior to Instalife) and also the more tabloid press, of ‘Jeanius’, ‘Can you believe this is denim?’ and calling me a denim artist. They say there is no such thing as bad press, but I felt it cheapened what I do, and my work isn’t all about it being in denim. I’m an artist, that happens to work in denim. It’s my paint, my medium, not much more. Beside the point of it reminded me of the phrase clip art, I just thought nah. There was a secondary point too, of how some in the lower ends of the denim industry would ask me to work with them, and when I didn’t, would get someone to do it. Or try. Some even just remaking my work – even sending spies to my studio. Don’t get me wrong, I know some great people in the countries where this is common, but you could guess the countries where this mentality came from. Combine it with an industry not known for its originality and morality it ended up being certainly a dark part of my career.
So, Ian Berry is.. an artist.
There are so many reasons why I love Ian’s work. His ability to capture realism in textile form is masterful without even considering the material he chooses to use. He captures intimate moments, and iconic settings that become instant classics, and even if they were simple photographs they would be arresting. Yet his choice of medium and his proficiency in manipulating the denim to create depth, shade and texture is truly astonishing.
Ian Berry is unafraid of tackling installations as well as “flatter” pieces of work, and whether it’s record stores or launderettes, he reproduces reality in denim in a way that evokes nostalgia and effortless cool. The social narrative of denim is bound to the best of the American Dream and Ian’s aesthetic decisions echo these storylines.
At first glance Ian’s artworks are captivating, but on closer inspection they are phenomenal.
You can find out more about Ian Berry’s work, including the #IClapFor Project in our recent Textile Curator interview, and be sure to find him at his website and on Instagram. His excellent book “Splendid Isolation” produced in association with the Museum Rijswijk is a must have if you’re a textile artist fan.
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