By BRITTANY KNUPPER January, 2019
For years, artist Stephen Wilson has been, quite literally, stitching together an oeuvre that aims to blur the division between crafting and fine art. With a history in design and fashion, Wilson has been steadily exploring what it means to make something ageless. “People hear ‘textiles’ and ‘quilting’ and think of their grandmas,” he says, “but my work is about showing quilt patterns, fabric art, and history, and presenting them as fine art.” Not only is Wilson successful in this quest, but he has also created work that is so accessible that every little thread easily captivates you.
In the early 1990s, before computers would become ubiquitous, he created his own screen printing and graphic design business, creating T-shirts for bands and other things for fan clubs. Then he began to embroider. “At the time,” says Wilson, “embroidery was just starting to become a thing in fashion.” He bought a machine and embroidered some of the objects he was creating. It wasn’t long until the big fashion houses in New York began asking for embroidery. “They always outsource that sort of thing,” explains Wilson. “I was doing so many different techniques (lace one day, flowers the next) and I learned how to use a lot of different mediums and fabrics very quickly because the turnaround is so quick.” This lasted for fifteen years until several artists, upon seeing his embroidered work, convinced him he should showcase it.
Wilson’s first series “Beauty, Death, & What’s Underneath” launched a few years ago. It featured his first use of skulls, which would become an ongoing motif for him alongside objects like guns, hand grenades, and classic Americana imagery. The series is dark and lush with references to quilting and fabric, reminiscent of the fashion work of Alexander McQueen, but uniquely its own. Following this well-received first series, Wilson began executing his vision for his ongoing series “Luxury.” In it, Wilson makes use of boxes and fabric from high-end luxury lines like Gucci, Hermes, and Christian Dior. These materials become his 3-dimensional canvases upon which he embroiders. The result is a striking mixture of reappropriation, aesthetic vision, and sly handiwork. “People who buy luxury goods,” says Wilson, “have these boxes lying around. Something you would normally throw away. Even a Birkin box eventually gets tossed. It’s the disposable part of fashion that I want to explore.” Using these materials creates its own technical challenge: how to stitch on cardboard. In Cool ASL, 2018, Wilson showcases his technical finesse by embroidering directly onto a Dior box. The accompanying gold appliqué and 3-D printed sculpture elevate what is otherwise a simple box into a mesmerizing work of art that feels almost like a relic.
While he may be using contemporary fashion elements, Wilson never loses sight of the American Arts and Crafts movement, which influences many of his artistic practices. In his series “Americana” we see this influence at its most overt. As one of his largest series, the mixed media pays homage to quilting and American icons like John Wayne looking off in the distance with his usual stare, or Rosie the Riveter sporting new tattoos in a cowboy hat. When you look closely at this pieces, you realize they are individual blocks squares that are quilted and mounted onto wood blocks to form these icons. Some pieces contain millions of stitches, a testament not only to Wilson’s work ethic, but his vision to create a body of work in which the detail-oriented process is as important as the old icons he wants to embellish.
Wilson hopes audiences will think about how the medium (in this case, embroidery) and the message of a piece work together in unison, how they inform each other. When you look at a piece like Manifest Destiny II, 2017, and see the traditional red, white, and blue quilted blocks and the iconic imagery they sport (saddles, horses, campfires, guns, cow skulls, etc.), do you see a reverence for or a criticism of American history? This is the fine line Wilson balances upon, never admonishing the classic imagery he repurposes into his work but also bringing a modern sentiment to it in the form of texture. “At first,” says Wilson, “I wanted people to notice the medium, to see these textile arts as a way of expressing themselves. People don’t think of art that way. They don’t think of the engineering and the process. Now I want people to think about the story and the medium. How thread can tell a story just like paint and the medium you choose is inherently a part of the story you are telling.”
These stories are steeped in American pop culture and folklore, but they never get in the way of Wilson’s penchant for making art as accessible as possible. “For me,” he continues, “there is no difference between craft and fine art. It’s all about technique. They both require a lot of skill and practice. Fine art is defined by its subject matter, it tends to be much more defined and restricted, focused on a smaller audience. Crafting, as we think of it, is meant to be consumed by everyone, not just an audience that can afford to buy fine art.”
In this spirit, Wilson will be exhibiting his work at Aqua Art Miami, which exhibits work in a classic 1950s hotel where artists take over entire rooms. Established galleries and emerging artists alike are asked to participate. “Art can be a party,” says Wilson. He will be displaying his “Luxury” series there alongside his new offshoot series “Luxury Graffiti.” He will also have smaller pieces for the first time, around twelve inches in size alongside, of course, embroidered basketballs and skateboards, pieces he believes are “accessible for the entry level art collector.” Wilson, forever blunt about and aware of the mercantile side of art, will also have an entire wall dedicated to pieces that are $1,000 or less. “I want people to have my work,” says Wilson, “and I want some of it be accessible.”
Perhaps the first word that comes to mind when thinking of a Stephen Wilson piece is how democratic it is, not because they are political (in many ways they are apolitical) but because they aim for inclusion. The inclusion of materials and audiences alike have resulted in a body of work that harkens back to past traditions but modernizes them at the same time. Maybe Wilson put it best: “Art can be a party.” It doesn’t have to be stuffy or highbrow. It can be many things at once.
Stephen Wilson’s work can be seen on the East Coast at the New Gallery of Modern Art in North Carolina, DTR Modern in NYC, Boston, DC, Greenwich and Palm Beach, and the Nobu Hotel in Miami. On the West Coast it can be viewed at Art Angels Los Angeles (and Miami) location. His new monograph, Stephen Wilson: Luscious Threads, is available at participating galleries or on Amazon. You can also view his work online at https://www.stephenwilsonstudio.com. WM