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New Art Materialism exhibition shows denim, tulle and sneakers in a new light

By Simone Preuss


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Credits: “Hoop Dreams” by Justin Ruby made out of repurposed sneakers. Credits: Art Materialsm

Art Materialism is a collective of internationally renowned artists who are known for their use of unorthodox materials - denim and tulle on the textile side but also car upholstery, wallpaper, repurposed metal and old sneakers. Among them are Ian Berry, who is also the curator, Justin Ruby, Benjamin Shine, Matt Small, Lill O. Sjöberg, Peter Combe, Christian Faur, Matt Small, David Wightman and Max Zorn. 

For the first time, they are exhibiting together at Catto Gallery in London: The Art Materialism exhibition will start from tomorrow, 19th October, and run through 6th November 2023.

The exhibition poster. Credits: Art Materialism

“They have pushed their chosen medium beyond the novelty and perfected their craft,“ reads a press release. “These artists are now exhibiting in museums and galleries around the world as well as collaborating with major brands like John Galliano, Levi’s, The MET, Givenchy, Maison Margiela, Bergdorf Goodman, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ray Ban, The FA and Home Depot.”

“Creating something that is bigger than all of us”

Parallels are drawn with the Italian art movement Arte Povera that gained traction at the end of the 1960s in major cities throughout Italy. Literally meaning “poor art,” the artists used soil, rags and twigs to create works of art. The aim was to challenge and disrupt the values of the commercialised contemporary gallery system.

“I think it is good to band together, create something that is bigger than all of us and create something new. I prefer to do this and all grow together and help each other because everything that is good in my career has happened because another artist has helped me,” said curator and artist Ian Berry when talking to FashionUnited.

“Living Room Study” by Ian Berry, made out of denim. Credits: Art Materialism

Art Materialism artists tend towards the overabundant and easy to access materials available in an even more commercialised world. The exhibition will be displaying pieces created from materials as varied as denim, packing tape, sneakers, car upholstery, scrap metal, wallpaper, tulle fabric, crayons and paint swatches.

“I would meet artists at art fairs around the world, for example during Miami Basel and I found I was always drawn to artists who had created works out of materials no one had attempted to use before. We had all had to teach ourselves a way of using it. I wanted to bring these artists together as it’s important to me that we support one other. Being an artist is often so solitary especially with our time-consuming detailed work so it’s good to group together,” commented Berry who creates artworks that look like paintings from denim. One of his recent works, a giant denim mural, was commissioned by Levi’s and went on tour in Paris, Milan and Madrid.

Art made out of old sneakers

“Kwame” by Justin Ruby, made of old sneakers and car upholstery. Credits: Art Materialism

Pennsylvania-born Justin Ruby began his experiments while at school in the early 2000s, turning his pair of Air Jordan 7 French Blues into a self-portrait. It was for a college application, but it turned into much more.

Ruby stuck with the technique, later adding used materials ranging from Louis Vuitton bags to Tootsie Pop Wrappers and has garnered national attention. Among his customers are hip hop culture giants such as Lil Durk, J Prince, and Drake. He also participated in the NFT boom with his sold-out “100 Acre Wood” drop on OpenSea. The Art Materialism exhibition is his first one outside the US.

“There are going to be sneaker conventions, sneaker trade shows and of course all the sneaker brands that want to work with him,” is Berry’s prediction for Ruby’s future who is the youngest of the artists. “I want to help him navigate that. Not I have all the answers but that is the point - I did many things wrong and I want him to learn from my mistakes because I do not want him to go through the same thing,” added Berry.

Portraits made out of tulle

"Peace Flow No.1” by Benjamin Shine. Single length of tulle on canvas, 50cm x 70cm. Credits: Art Materialism

British-born Benjamin Shine is best known for his pioneering work in tulle. He developed his unique technique while studying fashion at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, and later at Central St. Martins. While he initially became obsessed with creating clothing from a single length of fabric, he eventually saw even more potential in using fabric as a medium through which to create ideas away from the body. He settled on tulle when he happened to notice a crumpled ball of it on the studio floor. Shine then developed a method of pressing a single length of tulle fabric under glass to create unique and striking portraits.

“I actually think of myself as a creative explorer and inventor. I’m an ideas person, and while my work often gets classed as art, painting, sculpture or design, it’s all a form of invention and creative thinking. If the end results provoke the reaction “How?” or “Wow!”, then I’m satisfied it has connected and made a positive impact,” explained Shine.

Shine's work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Arts and Design New York and The London Design Museum. Clients and collaborators include Beyonce, Givenchy, Maison Margiela, Bergdorf Goodman, Google, MTV and others.

Creating a new material out of denim

Guitar made out of ‘Twood’ by Lill O. Sjöberg. Credits: Art Materialism

Gothenburg-based artist Lill O. Sjöberg has gone so far in her commitment to re-making unwanted material that she has created an entirely new medium, which she calls “Twood”. She describes it as “a sustainable material made of discarded jeans, a hybrid between textile and wood celebrating the beauty of denim.”

According to her, the material “is a celebration to the mythical stories and aesthetics of denim, but also a contribution to a circular future”. The designer (MFA) and expert in sustainable design and circular processes has produced astonishing work from this new raw material, including a drum set and guitar displayed in 2021 alongside Ian Berry’s Record Store in the Swedish National Museum of Textiles. She has been working with issues around textile waste and material research since 2013 and is passionate about denim.

“Working with Lill is amazing. She is an amazing artist, designer and innovator - she invented a technique to make ‘denim wood’. What she then does with that ‘wood’ is incredible because it has better properties than wood even,” enthused Berry when asked by FashionUnited how it was to work together with another ‘denim artist’ - a term he does not necessarily think of himself as.

“For example in the guitar and violin world, they discovered that Lill’s twood actually has a better sound than mahogany and there is a mahogany shortage in the world. That is really interesting,” he added.

Art Materialism features nine artists

“The Walk” by Max Zorn (120 x 87 cm) made of packing tape. Credits: Art Materialism

Also on display will be artworks by San Francisco-based Canadian artist Peter Combe who makes portraits out of household paint swatches, Ohio-based artist Christian Faur who creates pixelated artworks out of thousands of crayons, London-based artist Matt Small who uses repurposed metal, Stockholm-born artist David Wightman who creates imaginary vistas out of textured wallpaper and Dutch street artist Max Zorn who uses nothing but packing tape and a scalpel to create stunning city scenes.

“When putting the work up yesterday, it was interesting to observe how people were vowed. The gallery was closed but there were artworks in the window and everybody who walked past actually stopped and looked. I think that is a really rare thing that I have noticed with my work over the years but all of our work has that kind of power,” said Berry about the reception of Art Materialism so far.

The Art Materialism exhibition will be on view from 19th October to 6th November 2023 at Catto Gallery in London.

benjamin shine
Ian Berry
Justin Ruby
Lill O. Sjöberg