To museum-goers of a certain age, a poster from the gift shop was the ultimate. One could carry home and display a reproduction of a favorite painting or sculpture. It served as a memory of a blockbuster exhibition. It was a tacked-up status banner on a dorm room wall. This fall, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC launched the contemporary version of the museum reproduction: scanned collection objects are available online for the public to download and print on a 3-D printer. An Alaskan Killer Whale Hat dating to 1900, an 18th century decorative chair from the Cooper-Hewitt collection and Abraham Lincoln’s Life Mask of 1865 are each ready for download via Smithsonian X 3D, an initiative which brings major collection works free to the public through 3-D scans to be uploaded onto a 3-D printer.
If this 3-D technology is best suited to natural history museums and for decorative arts objects, some wonder how the 3-D evolution will impact contemporary art. Will artists whose works are in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden or the National Portrait Gallery green light their works for this project? An email query to Gunter Waibel, Director of the Digitization Program at the Smithsonian, awaits reply, but some sculptors are unconvinced that 3-D is the next great leap in the creation, fabrication and realization of their work.
Arlene Shechet (American, b. 1951), an artist who pushes and prods the definition of the vessel through her clay objects said recently that “Like most artists, I am always happy to learn about and use new tools.” But Shechet stopped short of endorsing 3-D printing as a process of real significance to her sculptures. “This technology is no more or less than that… not an answer or an end in itself but rather a vehicle for possibly getting something done.”
Shechet’s fall 2013 exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins in New York was almost antithetical to any consideration of technology in art. Roughhewn handcrafted ceramics with wonky appendages and lovingly-applied glazes demonstrate the mastery of artist over materials. And if there are planned contradictions in Shechet’s works – rough and smooth, balance and imbalance, perfection and imperfection, symbolism and literalism – then technology vs. gesture isn’t embedded here. “Four or five years ago, I used 3-D carving/printing technology for a segment of my exhibition at MCA Denver,” she said. “…The process was laborious, involving quite a bit of time working with a specialized computer technician…Though I found the process too stilted to use regularly, the existence of the technology permitted me to dream up these images.”
Similarly, Jean Shin (American, b. Seoul 1971) is skeptical about the power of 3-D printing for her work. Shin, who is best-known for a labor intensive process of gathering multiples of tossed off objects and amassing them into sculptural installations, revealed that she’s not yet worked with a 3-D printer, “but I have considered this possibility on a previous project.” Like Shechet who found the process cumbersome and costly, Shin stated that when she did review the 3-D option to realize objects, “the scale I needed to make this form was cost prohibitive at the time. I imagine when the costs come down with demand, it might be a process I incorporate into my work.” Shin’s 2013 exhibition, in the New Directions series at the Montclair Art Museum, was on view through January 15, 2014.
While Shin’s work is identified for its extensive gathering of real-world abandoned detritus, she does rely on technology to create her projects. “Because of the scale of my site-specific installations, technology is a critical tool to help me visualize and innovate in the work. For some of my research-based projects, I’m using historical images and reworking these photographs digitally to create a new form and context in my work… It’s fascinating for me to imagine continuing the next digital possibility into three dimensional forms.”
Shin is prescient when looking ahead to further incorporating 3-D printing into her work: “As more of our lived experience is mediated through new technologies, it seems inevitable that 3-D printing is here to stay.”
While Shechet and Shin may have dubious interest in this process, 3-D printing is slowly creeping into the realm of the possible for a number of sculptors. When considering materials for a new work, or discussing future opportunities for artists, 3-D printing inevitably enters the conversation. If this dialogue accelerates for certain sculptors, it will relate to the printers as they come to accommodate scale and a diversity of materials.