Tuesday, 13 May 2014

3-D printing and Needlework?

Technology, arriving in unrelenting waves,  replaced  skill in many crafts, transforming workshops into factories.  Computer-controlled machines turn wood perfectly; knit stockings flawlessly; form chocolates precisely; and weave patterns consistently.  As a result, former luxury goods are, today, cheap, cheerful, and ubiquitous. By comparison, the visual arts have remained largely beyond the reach of skill-looting technology. That is about to change!

An original 3D printout by Prixel

Last week, Russian entrepreneurs unveiled a 3-D printer that can replicate paintings, even impasto. The machine mixes pigments and builds up layers of variegated paint, reproducing  the artist’s swirling strokes faithfully.  Prixel claim to duplicate a multi-million-dollar Van Gogh masterpiece for just $200. That’s well below the €25,000 ( $34,000)  that  Amsterdam’s  Van Gogh Museum  now charges for its limited editions 3-D printouts.

These developments astound me.  Museum visitors are accustomed  to seeing images from  collections plastered on  posters, scarves, and cups. Merchandizing profits defray institutional operating costs.  By offering high-caliber 3-D facsimiles, museums – those adjudicators of cultural merit – are shifting gear. Selling “tasteful” souvenirs -- literally memories -- of a collection is quite different from touting “original” replicas, which purists consider camp or parody. Camp/ kitsch mocks precisely what museums seek to mark as culturally significant/valuable/unique.  That’s a pity, that is. But it’s becoming acceptable, even Andy Warhol-like. And we embroiderers should be cheering. Why? Read on.

Besides providing more revenue for museums, 3-D printing is a great money spinner for contemporary artists too. Painters can now clone their most popular canvases to stave off starvation. For  clientele, buying 3-D printed oils could prove a bit like acquiring a numbered etching.   Caveat emptor. Collectors will need to be circumspect that their  3-D printed oil is as “rare” as it purports to be. Numerous Rembrandt etchings unearth at rummage sales are actually recently printed with  Rembrandt-engraved plates onto “old paper” still floating around. And there are countless genuine color photocopied maps hanging on walls trying to pass as  hand-colored antiques.  Oh well, nothing new here.

Now spare a thought for those poor – figuratively speaking – art collectors with deep pockets, who kick on owning exclusive and authentic  canvases covered in paint.   The arrival of 3-D printing has just  made exclusivity and authenticity harder to come by. So, is there a visual art form where authenticity and exclusivity can survive the onslaught of 3-D technology?  Absolutely.  Embroidery is one. I would say that wouldn’t I.

Hoodi and Bump by Me
The rise of 3-D printed paintings makes me, the hand-embroiderer, smile in glee. Even, the Chinese, who can copy anything by hand or machine, acknowledge the chasm between good machine embroidery, which remains crude compared to exquisite hand-embroidered art.  In the realm of embroidery it is still possible, even easy, to distinguish between machine and artisan items.  We humans are imprecise, thank goodness, compared to machines.  Even though Chinese hand-embroidery workshops reproduce images multiple times, the miniscule variations in needle placement make each rendition unique, too.

Moreover, there are numerous embroiderers who create singular works without following a pattern.  Me, for example.  I stitch portraits in thread.  Unlike Monet ,Van Gogh or the Chinese, who painted the same subject on numerous occasions, for me once is enough, thank you very much!

The embroidery style I practice is called thread painting. It is similar but not as fine nor as subtle as the classical Chinese technique in silk. Still it defies mechanization. Even I use about 40 colors of cotton thread per portrait.   I doubt that a machine exists that can handle the number of thread changes that my thread paintings demand. Never say never.   For the moment, there is no economic incentive to even try. So the uniqueness and authenticity of my work and those of other  thread painters is assured well into the future.  
Let’s hope the onslaught of 3-D printed paintings may just speed up a paradigm shift in thinking about what’s worth collecting.  Art aficionados need to get passed the bias that solely painting embodies the requisite authenticity and exclusivity so characteristic of a “good investment.”  Cautiously, galleries are reeducating art collectors by expanding  exhibitions to inclue embroidery and other “interesting” media. 

Consider the work, currently on display in London, of Australian Benjamin Shine.  He uses tulle and an iron to the create portraits for and of the rich and famous. The man irons.  Talk about putting a new wrinkle on something like art!  Pun aside, Shine is doing something difficult, daring, and delightful.

His success encourages me, the embroiderer.  I will stick to my thread painting, knowing that what I stitch is authentic, original, and exclusive to me. Will anyone in  the world, beyond my family, come to enjoy or collect it? Maybe, maybe not. Let's face fact. There are millions of  talented individuals out there making  billions of interesting things. Only a minority use paintbrushes.. or even  needle and thread.