Artist Benjamin Shine Creates These Portraits from a Single Piece of Fabric
Seeing Through The Material by Benjamin Shine was on display at Bergdorf Goodman from July 7-August 3, 2017. Photo by Ricky Sehav
Artist Benjamin Shine stands on a ladder, pulling pins from between pursed lips to affix a pouf of pink tulle onto a white background. Armed with a needle, thread, and a household iron, intuitively tugging at the fabric, Shine looks like a cross between a couturier and a stay-at-home dad. In reality, he’s neither; although he does dabble in couture collaborations, Shine is an artist who is perhaps best known lately for his portraits, “paintings” done entirely in materials such as tulle netting, wire mesh, or empty pill packs.
In July, just as the last tulle gowns were sweeping down the runways at Paris Couture Week, hundreds of yards of tulle were going up in the windows of famed Fifth Avenue department store Bergdorf Goodman in New York City, where five of Shine’s portraits, or tulle flows, as they’re called, were on display for four weeks and were seen by hundreds of thousands of streetside passersby.
The thirty-nine year old has been at it for over a decade now, experimenting with sculpting and painting using non-traditional materials, but his roots are, not surprisingly, in fashion. Even before attending Central Saint Martin’s, where he earned a degree in Fashion Design, Shine seemed destined for the fashion industry. His great-grandfather, a tailor, moved to London during a wave of Jewish exodus from Russia. He continued his trade, crafting well-made suits, and eventually transitioned into a more mass market garment factory. The business was passed down through the generations, but by the time Benjamin came of age, his parents, who had seen the less glamorous side of the industry, weren’t necessarily encouraging him to follow suit, so to speak, in the family trade. In any case, he took his first internship at sixteen at a small, independent fashion house.
“I designed some shirts that had some interesting details and they liked them and ended up putting them in their range. I guess it was a little confidence booster at that stage, and I thought maybe this is something I should start exploring more.”
But once at CSM, he soon realized that while he enjoyed working with fabric, garment design wasn’t the only direction he could take it.
“I was really interested in learning how to make clothing in a different way, that’s what I focused on during my whole studies. I learned how to cut in one piece, and I was making clothing that traveled through the body rather than just down it,” he explains.
“It was the first time I’d really taken a subject and tried to shift the perspective on how to approach it. When I left Saint Martins I was already working with fabrics off the body and experimenting with the idea of painting with fabric. And even from then until now I’ve done so many inventions and products which have been patented, and designed all sorts of things all using that same mentality of ‘how can you reinterpret or change the perspective of the subject at hand?”
To watch Shine expertly manipulate the materials, it’s clear that sculpting in this way is as intuitive as it is technical, calling to mind another more traditional sculptor, Michaelangelo, who famously likened his method to freeing a subject from the marble. Videos of Shine at work, like one produced by Huffington Post, have been viewed over a hundred million times. For some pieces, he works first on a horizontal surface, laying a pile of fabric out on a canvas or a work table, tugging and pulling it about with his hands, searching and feeling, pulling and pushing as a portrait takes shape and emerges. For others, such as the tulle flows for Bergdorf Goodman or the portrait of Sheikha Moza of Qatar, he sews them onto a tulle backdrop, concentrating it to create shadows and depth or laying it on in a single layer to create light and plains.
Portrait of Sheikha Mozah in progress, 2015
He’s taken on world leaders, immortalizing Margaret Thatcher in silk woven through rusted iron in 2006. A portrait of Barack Obama, called “Changing States” was made from strips of an American flag and was unveiled on Inauguration Day in 2009 at the New York Museum of Arts and Design. It was then picked up by Barnes and Noble bookstores as the official commemorative image on items from puzzles to books.
He’s also created some campier, Warhol-ier, more mainstream pieces - portraits of Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor and, in fact, Andy Warhol. The Elizabeth Taylor portrait now hangs at the bar at Grace Belgravia, a private women’s health and lifestyle club in London, and a portrait of Princess Charlene of Monaco, which was debuted at the Oceanographic Museum, is now exhibited at Monaco's Barclays Building.
For his 2015 wedding to chef Daniella Stone, Shine turned Summerlees Estate in Australia, the site of the couple’s nuptials, into an outdoor sculpture gallery with “Entwined”, a breath-taking piece depicting the two in profile, lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes. The sculpture, which looks like smoke wafting on a gentle breeze, is actually made with four kilometers of powder-coated metal mesh, and served as a path leading wedding guests to their seats, as well as a backdrop for the ceremony.
Benjamin Shine x John Galliano for Maison Martin Margiela. Photo by Valeria Mazzanotti.
The work that he’s done in collaboration with fashion houses are particularly stirring, because the sculptural beauty and awe-inspiring technique of the tulle flows are boosted by movement and rhythm. Where fashion can sometimes get stripped of its art because at the end of the day garments must, after all, be wearable, art can rely more on emotion than usability or practicality. Because Shine is in this lawless dimension between fashion and art, he isn’t anchored to or encumbered by one or the other, and instead can cherry-pick the best of both worlds, using sewing and patternmaking skills picked up in fashion school, as well as materials that move, to create moving art.
Watching runway footage of the “Face Coat” he created for John Galliano’s Artisanal Collection at Maison Martin Margiela is like seeing a model engulfed in a smoky specter; it feels dangerous and alluring, like watching an arthouse horror movie that you know will haunt you later but is just too delicious not to devour.
The fashion collaborations also make the art more accessible. The tulle portraits he created for Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy blend sacrosanct artwork (the “Madonna” and “Madonna with Child”) with something as relatable as athleisure. The Bergdorf Goodman windows, for example, turn his tulle flows into, essentially, public street art.
Benjamin Shine’s “Madonna” in tulle for Riccardo Tisci’s SS13 Menswear collection for Givenchy
The fact that in the Bergdorf installation, cheekily dubbed “Seeing Through the Material,” the art pieces were paired with couture - effectively the opposite of streetwear - serves to really drive the message home, delivering a rather big, important message in a package that is so quietly striking. With the installation, Shine was seeking to transcend the physical, material world, instead giving shape and form to energy, thoughts and emotions.
“We are in a time where everything is so heavily focused on materialism, fighting for our attention and seducing us to improve or better ourselves through the things we buy and the things we show we have,” Shine explains. “[‘Seeing Through the Material’] is talking about materialism, not just in fashion but in general; it’s not really saying that it’s bad, it’s just about representing a balance that’s kind of necessary right now.”
In terms of layout, the Bergdorf installation borrowed a bit from “Entwined,” Shine’s wedding sculpture. In photographs from the wedding, Benjamin and Daniela stand in the forefront with “Entwined” behind them, almost as if their souls were floating behind their bodies. Similarly, in the Bergdorf windows, the ghostly tulle flows floated behind mannequins like shadows or ghosts that left the body.
“When there’s a piece of couture fashion on a mannequin, you have this material figure to sort of hide behind. It’s almost a suggestion of concentration or meditation of a spiritual side that needs to be retained alongside the material and more superficial, so we try to keep both of those things in check. It’s just about that balance.”
The initial round of gowns on the mannequins, by the way, all sold and had to be replaced by other looks throughout the course of the nearly month-long installation, so while the same five portraits remained, the accompanying clothing changed.
A more disgruntled, or at the very least more traditional artist might have rejected the idea of allowing commerce to affect the way his or her art is displayed and presented, but Shine used that very fact as part of the subject matter.
“I’ve really enjoyed showing my work in commercial spaces, especially spaces geared towards selling us products because it acts as that gentle reminder of that relationship between the superficial and the spiritual. That’s what the piece is about, and commercial spaces are the perfect location to inject that spiritual element right bang alongside it,” says Shine.
“We’ve got things like social media and people are always presenting a certain side - an orchestrated, fabricated side - of themselves,” he continues. “Where does the truth lie? It comes from within, and I want to put that right next to that object, that thing being sold. No matter all the different choices we have and want and can buy, we have to keep that understanding of oneself.”
In researching this piece, I kept finding myself referring to articles, interviews, and videos of Demna Gvasalia, the designer behind Vetements and, most recently, Balenciaga. Certainly, as a writer, it’s not unusual to get sucked into distracting and meandering internet rabbit holes, but still, I couldn’t shake the subliminal comparison in my mind.
Both artists somehow manage to be at once commenting on - scoffing at, even - the material culture of the fashion world and yet are also very much a part of it, albeit in different ways; if the two were performers, for example, Gvasalia would be crowd-surfing, and Shine would be in a soft column of light in the center of the stage, far from the edge but visible and audible by even the nosebleed seats. While Gvasalia cheekily trolls the fashion world with ironic and iconic pieces like a DHL-inspired pullover, an oversized blue leather bag that bore an uncanny resemblance to an IKEA tote, or an entire collection inspired by Bernie Sanders’ nomination campaign, Shine does it in a gentler, more studied way, even with the Bergdorf Goodman installation, for example. Although it is very much street art in the sense that it’s available to, and indeed enjoyed by, anyone and everyone who walks/bikes/drives by, day or night, it still has that holy, couture glow. Like Gvasalia, Shine is in a space where he fits in tidily in with the fashion world while still taking it down a peg or two and delivering it just outside the inner circle.
“Having a design background comes into play, I want to create things that the majority connects with, or finds some sort of appeal in. It’s not for a minority, I try to be inclusive, to find something that I feel that can connect on a bigger scale, not something one or two people will like but something where people are like ‘yes I get this.’ ”
Indeed, watching viewers take in “Seeing Through the Material” is incredibly rewarding, especially when the realization that these are made entirely in tulle sinks in. For Shine, it’s about giving passersby a moment to stop, and think. “It slows them down for a minute, it creates a moment of self reflection, a break from the hustle and bustle.” Again, a double meaning - in this case, the self-reflection is quite literal, as viewers can see themselves reflected in the windows.
“More people take to the streets than the runway,” explains Shine. “By the time it gets to the streets there’s some common ground.”