Benjamin Shine Sculpts Feminine Faces Out of Tulle

Cosseting ballerinas and society swans, tulle has long been admired for its ineffable delicacy. Now, the British artist Benjamin Shine pushes the fabric to its extremes.

Benjamin Shine Studio's Flow Series "Breathe" 2016.

Tulle’s delicate clouds have traditionally conveyed femininity: half-concealing a bride’s face, it presents genteel beauty as a prize; gathering around Grace Kelly in Rear Window, it’s a temptation. It’s also the stuff of ballet tutus, having graced the forms of such iconic Swan Queens as Anna Pavlova and Margot Fonteyn, as well as Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw, whose tulle skirt was famously sprayed with gutter water by a New York City bus in the series’ opening credit sequence. Some also experiment with tulle for artistic ends. Yohji Yamamoto made a roselike bustle of it, immortalized by Nick Knight in 1986; Viktor & Rolf chainsawed the fabric into crunchy assemblages it sent down the runway, serenaded by the pregnant Róisín Murphy in 2009.

Artist Benjamin Shine installing Flow Series "Within" 2016.

Fashion is familiar territory for Benjamin Shine. As a student at Central Saint Martins in London, he daily walked past a fabric storefront that was filled floor-to-ceiling with tulle. “One day, I have to do something with that,” he recalls thinking. After graduating in 2003, he established his own studio in New York, exploring what he calls “the constructional challenge of making an image out of a single piece of material.” Tulle in one hand, an iron or spray starch in the other, Shine called forth landscapes, abstracted forms, and faces, particularly the brightly moody ones of young women. By 2013, his work attracted both the attention of Riccardo Tisci, who mixed three pieces into sportswear for Givenchy, and institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the London Design Museum, each of which purchased his work for their collections.

Hand-stitched woman’s face for John Galliano’s Artisanal Spring Maison Margiela show 2017.

Shine believes that tulle is unique in that it is at once transparent and matte. “Some of these pieces could be produced in glass or acrylic, as the transparency factor is key, but the problem with those materials is that they give themselves away,” he says. “The glint and glossy surface describe a solidity that ruins any illusion of smoke, energy streams, or sense of apparition.” Unlike tulle, with its hexagonal holes that bring to mind sweet honeycomb and fatal fishnets. “The sculptural way I use the material offers a surreal and subtle visual effect that no other medium can achieve.”

Flow Series "Quietude" 2019.

(Photos courtesy Benjamin Shine Studio)

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