A pair of banana flip-flops. Fruit loop earrings. A stiletto phone. Or is it a phone stiletto? These are just a few of the subjects found in image-maker Gab Bois’ mesmerising artworks. Combining ingenious photo editing with impossibly-real hand-crafted objects, Gab’s surrealist artworks subvert everyday items and pop-culture relics to create works of joy, curiosity, and confusion.
I ask the French-Canadian artist how shewould describe her own work. “That’s been an ever-evolving definition, I think,” she begins. “Honestly, it keeps changing, but I think the most matter-of-fact I can get about it is idea-based photography because it’s mostly been documented through photography.”
Gab’s witty elevations of the mundane are equal parts surprising and expected – like, of course that handbag is actually a croissant – bringing childlike fantasies to life. “I always start with the idea because photography has become a strict way to document the work that to me is the physical subject of the photo,” she explains. “I have a bunch of different rhythms when it comes to ideas, sometimes they come out of nowhere, like that in-between space when you’re almost waking up, but still a bit asleep so you can stay in touch with your dreams.”
Always on alert for a moment of inspiration to arise, the 25-year-old keeps a notepad and pen by her bedside. “It’s happened a lot where I’m so close and then can’t get to [the idea], but I’m hoping that they come back at some point. I would be lying if I said that I was constantly inspired – that’s not how things work, especially when I have this super intense rhythm pushing myself to keep going. I see creativity and inspiration as a muscle that needs to be trained, so that’s why I like to keep a fast rhythm while also having long-term projects on the back burner. I see it as a creative exercise to create one or two photos per week, just to make sure my brain is still doing what it needs to do.”
I see creativity and inspiration as a muscle that needs to be trained, so that’s why I like to keep a fast rhythm while also having long-term projects on the back burner. I see it as a creative exercise to create one or two photos per week, just to make sure my brain is still doing what it needs to do.
Since 2016, Gab has regimentally produced and posted her mind-bending works to Instagram. “It’s helped a lot with my perfectionism because you can’t really be too much of a perfectionist when you have a fast working pace,” she asserts. “Sometimes the idea just needs to be let out and live on its own, and then whatever happens, happens.”
“When I brainstorm, I like to look at online trends, fashion and beauty trends, food trends,” she explains of her process. “I like to work with things that are in people’s minds currently, mostly in the digital space. I will write down, ‘what are the top trending clothing items of the season?’ and brainstorm around that. Or ‘what are the fruits and vegetables that are coming in season’ and try to brainstorm around that. Those are little keywords that I give myself to orient my reflection because if not, I get a bit all over the place.”
While the artist has experimented with many mediums blending nostalgia with nature, one subject remains constant through most of her imagery – herself: “It’s been really interesting because, obviously, I started this kind of work when I was 19 and I’m now 25, so my body is not the same than when I first started.” Gab also cites the pandemic as having an impact on her artwork’s subjects. “I try to be very detached, and I would never say that about another model,” she explains. “That’s why I like working with myself, I kind of see myself as a prop, as a hanger. I’m so comfortable working by myself because I wouldn’t ever want to treat another human in that way. There’s a kind of freedom to see the human body detached and just serving the subject instead of the other way around.”
Far from destitute, her solitary working conditions mirror that of her earliest artistic developments. “I think growing up as an only child really helped with my creativity because, although I had some neighbourhood friends and really present parents who I’m so lucky for, I did have to find ways to occupy my time, mostly with arts and crafts in the backyard,” she recalls fondly. “I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent digging for insects and making little houses even though they didn’t need them.”
Growing up near Montreal, Gab’s first introduction to art came at home. She enthuses, “One of my earliest inspirations was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian painter who does all the crazy faces with the fruits?” She looks at me hopefully through her webcam to see if I’m familiar before continuing. “I got acquainted with his work through my Dad, and my Dad taught me 90% of what I know about art. He would take me to the library to look at art books and taught me in a way that didn’t feel like work at all, not in an academic way.”
She’s quick to mention her parents and the important role they have had in shaping her success: “My Dad is a huge inspiration, and he’s an artist himself. He’s been painting ever since I can remember and long before I even came around. He worked as a receptionist and was working nights, so usually he was around on weekdays. I would come home from school to have lunch at home and he was usually painting. Being surrounded by that creative energy that was never motivated by financial or career goals felt really healthy. I feel very lucky that I got my first glimpse at the art world through my Dad.”
As we talk, a number of nostalgic items come up as serving inspiration – Polly Pockets, clunky technology, retro sweets, board games. “I also like to think of [my work] as an extension of some childhood passions that I had, getting into small crafts, making grass necklaces. I’m getting back in touch with that through the work that I do now.”
Gab went on to study visual arts at college, where she started to develop her practice. “That was my favourite subject in school. Then I was going to start my Bachelor’s to become an elementary school teacher, but that’s another story,” she laughs. “I was there for two years and I really loved sculpture and art history, and I hated my photography classes.”
I also like to think of [my work] as an extension of some childhood passions that I had, getting into small crafts, making grass necklaces. I’m getting back in touch with that through the work that I do now.
In a class project when the students were asked to select a photographer to study – she chose Czech visual artist Michal Pudelka – and fell in love with the craft through delving deep into its history. “I still don’t know what most photography terms mean,” she says. “I have no real technical background but the concepts and ideas make up for it. I really wish I did as I think it could bring my work to another level, but that’s not really what it’s about: it’s about the physical subject, and the photo only serves as documentation of the physical piece.”
While the creative environment at college served up endless inspiration, Gab struggled to apply her visions to the required assignments. Following a six-month break after finishing her studies, she picked up photography as a pastime. “And I guess here we are,” she smiles.
Here, in 2022, is an account with over 600,000 admirers, a creative studio with an intimate support team, a published book and a roster of high-calibre clients including Balenciaga, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Louboutin and Fenty. Like all good internet-success stories, Gab appears unaware of the impact her work has had in informing a generation’s understanding and appreciation of unexpected art forms. “I didn’t have any career goals related to that when I was first making it, it had the purest intentions because it really was just for fun,” she says, admitting she was a “late bloomer” among her friends to even make an Instagram account. “I got my first iPhone in 2019, so for the longest time I was working with Android phones and I wasn’t having the best of luck,” she grimaces.
Her work was a near-instant hit. “I guess it had to do with a bunch of different factors,” she explains with humble objectivity, although there’s no doubt her unique lens resonated with viewers desperately searching for light within their doomscroll. “The work itself somewhat, but also timing, and the Instagram algorithm at the time was really great. It was 2016, so prime-time Instagram, and I was getting really great numbers through the Explore page. The work I was doing was heavily inspired by things that I was seeing on Tumblr and Pinterest by creators whose work I really admired, so I really started with their inspirations before finding my own voice.”
Like many Instagram users, Gab is quick to admit that the site’s opportunities for creator growth are vastly diminished when compared to earlier versions of the app. “It just felt organic, like nothing was getting pushed down our throats and there weren’t any ads,” she attests. “It was a fun place to be. Of course with any social media, it came with its own share of hate, because when your work gets discovered by people that haven’t really signed up to see your content, it can go both ways – some people can be positively surprised, some people can be negatively surprised. It was never super bad, but people did have strong reactions.”
Not one to miss a trick, Gab uses Instagram’s caption function to include satirical one-liners and clever comedy (or sometimes, a series of abstract emojis) alongside the art. I ask if she’s ever felt uncomfortable or awkward when her work is misinterpreted online. “No, I really love it,” she laughs. “Honestly, I always love when people put their spin on my things, because what I do is putting my spin on existing things. I’m always interested in hearing people’s take on it, and that’s why I always try to give as little context as possible about certain pieces. My work is a way for me to have some escapism in a way that it just takes my mind off a lot… I have a lot of anxiety, so my work is a way to get out of that. I try to keep it light, and then if people want to add layers of depth to it, I like that it’s their job and not mine.”
If she does have deeper intentions to the work, she enjoys keeping this to herself. Thankfully, she says, she’s yet to have an artwork badly misconstrued and enjoys seeing viewers attach new meaning, relate it to unknown references or have it compared to others’ work. Crediting is still a huge problem for artists self-publishing work on social media where ‘reposting’ work without naming the artist is painfully common, but Gab says over time she’s stopped caring about where her artwork ends up on the internet. “Once I post it, it belongs to everyone and it’s for everyone to share,” she says. “That being said, what I strive for now is more of a sustainable impact, especially over time.”
Since 2021, Instagram users have complained that the app’s recent changes have negatively impacted its functionality, culminating in a petition this Summer to remove the updates that was signed by over 300,000 users. “I owe a lot of my success to Instagram so it feels weird to say anything negative about it,” she starts. “At the same time, the reality of it is that, contrary to other sites like Youtube or TikTok, Instagram has never rewarded its creators financially, which is not something they are obligated to do. However, if you don’t have that, you have to compensate with something else that I feel is just missing. Now, I feel there’s a lack of respect for the creators that have made this app, and I’m not talking about myself, but the people who made this app by posting their photography are now being suppressed for the sake of [Instagram] appearing like other apps. It feels really disheartening.”
I have a lot of anxiety, so my work is a way to get out of that. I try to keep it light, and then if people want to add layers of depth to it, I like that it’s their job and not mine.
In the face of unknown changes to the platform, Gab is cautiously remaining on the platform, but expresses some nerves at its insatiable appetite for video content. “I’m 25 years old, I’m by no means old, but when it comes to TikTok, I do feel it a bit,” she says. “I think that’s the duality with what I do, working and diffusing it on social media. In an ideal world, I would make content to be consumed at a slower pace, and I just feel like TikTok is the absolute opposite of that.”
She continues: “I don’t think – and maybe that’s just me being naive – that video can completely replace stills, so that’s going to be interesting to see in the coming years. For me, I’m trying different mediums and trying to merge into more of the physical world.”
Bridging digital and physical worlds is second nature for Gab, whose practice continues to blur the boundaries of what is ‘real’, and questions what ‘real’ even is when it comes to the internet. While she describes her own work as image-based, her fascination with the physical craft involved in her art strikes me as an intriguing contradiction, and I’m curious to know at what stage in her prop-making to photo-taking process Gab feels the artwork comes to life.
She admits it’s not something she often questions about her work, but says its artistic qualities develop at different stages depending on the artwork’s material. “A lot of the perishable materials that I use, for example fruits and vegetables, are immortalised only through photo. So in that case, it would be the photography, but for others, I still have the physical products of, or the subjects of the photos. I much prefer the subjects because they can live many different lives after the photo, especially if they’re wearable. That’s a part that I really like and I want to create more long-lasting physical products instead of just photos. And I love photos and I’m not going to stop doing it, but I do want to tap into product design too.”
Her keen curiosity to immerse audiences in her world has led to participating in gallery shows, including a group show in Paris at the end of October and in New York in November. “I think it feels more sustainable, and I get a lot more satisfaction from creating work that could have a physical life, like this feature for BRICKS in a magazine that I can hold and have live on my coffee table,” she smiles at the thought. “It’s just a different experience, and although I really love the digital experience for my work – I think it makes sense – I would have liked to do more physical experiences for myself and for the viewers. I always say when people ask me for advice that if I had to do it all over again, I probably would put half and half of my energy into the digital space and in the physical space, whereas I think I probably focused 95 to 5%.”
Gab is not short of advice for budding artists. “Every generation comes with new challenges,” she says. “The fast pace that is expected of artists now, and the expectation to document their practice and show their work can be challenging for those who don’t feel comfortable sharing that format. Another challenge I faced is that the business side of the art world is still very taboo. You’re not really supposed to talk about how much money you make or how much work you’re doing. To me, that was difficult because I didn’t have any knowledge on the financial or legal side of art. How can anyone find a reference if people don’t talk about their experiences?”
Her honesty about the difficulties facing young artists is refreshing. “I had to learn by getting fucked over a bunch of times, so that part feels like the biggest challenge to me,” she says wryly. “I hope this will get better for future generations of artists, and art programmes should run business classes because it’s a necessary part of the work, and emerging artists don’t necessarily have the means or resources to hire a lawyer to look at their contracts.”
For now, Gab’s sights appear firmly set on expanding her brand outside of Instagram. “I’m working on a wearable product line that’s coming out in the Spring. I’ve been working on that for two years now, so it’s been on my mind for a long time,” she admits. “It’s going to be really cool, focusing my energy on things people can feel, touch, wear, and just experience in a way that feels more complete.”
Maddy is the Digital Editor at BRICKS with an interest in the intersection of fashion, digital culture, politics and sustainability. She is endlessly inspired by emerging designers, digital innovators and sustainability activists pioneering a new future for the fashion industry in the face of the climate crisis.
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