Dream Weaver

New York-Based Artist Creates Magical Woven Portraits

Portraits are a very old art form, predating the advent of photography by centuries. As the proliferation of selfies demonstrates though, they refuse to die. Nevertheless, doing something new and exciting with the format is a real challenge. But Chicago-born artist and photographer, David Samuel Stern has undoubtedly achieved just that with his Woven Portraits – each one made of two large-scale images of the same person physically woven together – which are at once ethereal and full of life.

Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Christina Robson by David Samuel Stern
“Portraiture, as a visual-art genre, has always been about defining the portrayed. It wants to say, ‘This is you, now and forever,’” David tells us. “I hope that my portraits have found a way around this, and that, in doing so, tell us more, rather than less, about their sitters.” The fusing of two images gives us a dual perspective on the same person, condensing time and revealing something deeper than a single image often can.

David began by weaving landscapes together, which he found ineffective. When he made the switch to people, he realised he was on to something. The discovery of vellum, a semi-transparent paper was a happy accident, but added an extra dimension. “With vellum, there is an opacity shift that comes with the weave, which lets more of each of the photos speak at once,” he explains. He was commissioned to produce a new series of the portraits to be exhibited at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York.

Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Aaron White by David Samuel Stern
Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Elizabeth Coker by David Samuel Stern
Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer David Gonsier by David Samuel Stern
We spoke to David about his work and the new show:

The Plus: How do you put these together, is it a laborious process?
David Samuel Stern:
For my sins, yes. In addition to the labour that any photographer would experience, there is a long process of selecting, from approximately 150 frames of each subject, two images that will combine together in an interesting way. And then the real work begins! I have a system for holding the prints in place on board adhered to a drafting table, while I cut them using an Olfa blade and a straightedge. But, with caution, this takes quite a while. Then weaving together the cut up prints is done with my hands and only some basic tools. This physical process has taken a toll on my fingers and my back. 

Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Jin Ju Song-Begin by David Samuel Stern
TP: Portraits are quite an archaic format, do you think they’re making a comeback because of selfies?
Portraiture is part of humanness. I can’t help but think there’s a bit of portraiture in those hand outlines on the cave walls at Lascaux—about as archaic as art formats can get. I wonder if a selfie taken today will also still be around in 17,000 years. A comeback would imply that portraiture lost popularity at some point between the Stone Age and now, and I’m not sure that’s the case.

Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Dwayne Brown by David Samuel Stern
TP: How do you choose your models?
The portrait subject of the pieces in the BAM exhibition are members of the same dance company and the cast a particular production. So, this time around, my models were a given. Ordinarily, however, I seek people who have an interesting, but not overpowering, look. This process needs room to breathe.

Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Michael Richman by David Samuel Stern
TP: What will you do once the exhibition is over?
I’m going to continue to evolve the woven portraits, or, at least, images that I physically composite in some way. And I might move away from focusing on the face. Last fall, I experimented with several new materials including transparent c-prints, and I think these will eventually play a role. But, If you’re asking about what I’ll do immediately following the exhibition, I’m certain it will involve lager! 

Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Rebecca Arends by David Samuel Stern
Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny choreographer and artistic director Seán Curran by David Samuel Stern
Woven Portrait of Seán Curran Comapny dancer Shane Dennis Rutkowski by David Samuel Stern

David Samuel Stern’s Woven Portraits are at Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York until 20 December 2015.

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