In the 21st century, we pretty much take for granted what used to be a long and laborious process of weaving cloth by hand and magically turning it into something we could wear. It’s hard to imagine that more than 40,000 years ago, primitive mankind was satisfied with wrapping up in the hides of wild animals for protection from life-threatening winter temperatures as they huddled within a dark cave, illuminated only by a campfire. As we evolved, people got smarter and more inventive as they discovered that single thin fibers, such as those from cotton and silk, could be cleaned up, de-bugged and packed into baseball shapes that are conducive to furiously spinning like a tornado, producing a single connective thread that would be utilized in a primeval loom, which would generate blankets, rugs, and fabric for clothing and other creature comforts. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, where artisans from the Far East and Europe developed huge factories for making fabric for the privileged classes initially, and later for the rest of the population. An entire passageway in China was designated as the “Silk Road,” since a great majority of these products were en route from there to hungry markets around the world. Embellishing these plain swaths of textiles ultimately would become de rigueur as the final step in producing distinctive wearable material.
So, it should be no surprise that the next step in the amazing evolution of cloth was realizing the decorative properties of embroidery as a standard handicraft of adorning fabric or other elements using a needle to apply thread or yarn. The process used to tailor, patch and reinforce cloth fostered the development of sewing techniques, and the ornamental possibility of sewing led to the fine art of embroidery. This uncommon art form has been seen globally, and several early examples were found in China, dated to the Warring States period between the 3rd and 5th centuries BC. In Sweden, around 300 AD, it was discovered that when the edges of bands of trimming were reinforced with running stiches, it fortified the seams while adding a unique component of embroidery. This assembly of elaborately embroidered clothing, religious objects and household items often were a mark of wealth and status, as in the case of Opus Anglicanum, a practice used by professional workshops and guilds in medieval England. Conversely, embroidery also is a folk art, using ingredients that were accessible to nonprofessionals. Embroidery was an important art in the Medieval Islamic realm as well, and in the 17th century a Turkish traveler named Evliya Çelebi called it the “craft of the two hands.” Because embroidery was a sign of high social stature in society, it became widely popular.
In cities such as Damascus, Cairo and Istanbul, embroidery was visible on handkerchiefs, uniforms, flags, calligraphy, shoes, robes, tunics and even on leather belts. As technology progressed, Isaac Merritt Singer invented the first massed-produced sewing machine in 1850, which almost overnight made putting together swatches of material practical for a homemaker or designer. The advent of modern day computers that can interpret an artist’s drawing and put it into mind-blowing complicated swirling designs caught the attention of contemporary artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, who occasionally employed sewing in their artwork, but one artist in particular, coincidentally located in North Carolina where most of the cotton mills first flourished, seems to be the undisputed leader in harnessing the power of computerized embroidery and transforming it into glorious works of art that acclaim art about art and contemporary symbology.
Stephen Wilson is becoming a household name in the art world with his extraordinary style and remarkable skill of manipulating thread, which is connected to his amazing embroidered work that first began twenty years ago, when he decided to explore the commercial opportunities of computer generated sewing machines. His new inventive process connected with his artistic discipline eventually made him the best innovative artist and designer in the industry. These custom machines literally would “spin” meandering stitched lines that possessed an idiosyncratic fine art visual aroma that progressed into his present day celebrated compositions. Between the iconic elements that motivate much of his designs and the significant size and variety of the pieces he is producing, along with the post-Pop imagery, this new series is exciting to observe and stimulating to connect the references. Utilizing and celebrating luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Dior, Wilson has created through careful experimentation a beautiful and rather remarkable approach to incorporating Americana into a technique that has a centuries-old history, and making it fresh, arresting and new. Two of his latest works featuring Dior and Hermès, both with Monarch butterflies, have more than 30,000 handdrawn stitches, abstract swirls of thread that are reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s tornado-like whirls. Another detail making these so outstanding is their vibrant matte blue pigment, which is only made by one living chemist in Paris, the same one used by Yves Klein.
The illustrations here invite the viewer to enjoy the diversity and inventiveness of an artist who has found a delightful niche inspired by a traditional material. From his work shown at New Gallery of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, and most recently at DTR Modern on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach (appropriately, one of the most luxury brand streets in the world!), Wilson takes us on a visual tour of a marriage between invention, production and exclusivity with the power of ironic images and brands to establish an outstanding artistic union.
Stephen Wilson is also now being represented by two new galleries, Exhibit by Aberson in Tulsa, OK and VW Contemporary in Greenwich, CT. For more information about the artist: www.stephenwilsonstudio.com