Art review: ‘Digital Hand’ explores sculptural possibilities of technology

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Safety Chain by Amy Klainer. Laser-cut wool felt, found chain, fabricated chain
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Beam me up, Scotty.

When the implications of what’s being shown at the Kent State School of Art Galleries sank in, that’s one of the first things that occurred to me, and I doubt I’ll be alone.

The Digital Hand is a survey of the work of 18 metalsmiths who have integrated digital technologies into their art practice. Curated by Kathleen Browne, KSU professor of crafts: jewelry/metals, the exhibit demonstrates the engagement in digital technologies by cutting-edge artists.

Their work reveals the range of techniques now available, from using computer programs solely as a design tool to fabricating art using laser cutting, stereo lithography and 3-D printing.

While laser cutting and stereo lithography sound exotic, they’ve been around a while. It’s the works made using 3-D printing that turn your head around.

Technically, additive manufacturing or 3-D printing is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model. It’s achieved using additive processes — creating an object by laying down successive layers of material. 3-D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) that mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting, etc.

3-D printing is usually performed using a materials printer and digital technology. It is used in the fields of jewelry; footwear; industrial design; architecture, engineering and construction; automotive; aerospace; dental and medical industries; education; geographic information systems; civil engineering; and many others.

Over the past decade, there’s been tremendous growth in the sales of these machines, and their prices have dropped substantially. In the gallery along with the works of art is a 3-D printer that the school bought from Staples for around $1,200. It prints objects around 4 to 5 inches square and in one color.

“You can buy larger ones that print in multiple colors,” said Anderson Turner, KSU director of galleries. “But for the metalsmithing program, this size is all they need.”

In the gallery, visitors can see Fulsome Bloom Pendant, a stainless-steel pendant created by laser cutting by Melissa Cameron; Ellipsoidal, one of several bangles created by Matthew Hollern using SLS technology; Islet | Black Sectional, a neckpiece by Doug Bucci using glass-filled nylon and sterling silver printed as one interlocked piece; and Loti by Plural Studios — Courtney Starrett and Michael Gayk using SLS nylon.

Selective laser sintering uses high-powered lasers to fuse plastic, metal or ceramic powder particles together, layer-by-layer, to form a solid model.

“This technology is taking off,” Turner said. “You can make car parts or artificial human organs on 3-D printers.”

This calls into question the need for huge infrastructures to manufacture steel, for instance, as steel can be processed through a 3-D printer, creating all manner of steel parts, from car bodies to engines to large and small appliances.

“All of that infrastructure that we used to need for the steel industry, for instance, or to build a car, as another example, today, you don’t need that,” Turner pointed out. “You don’t have to build a plant, you can buy a 3-D printer and make it in your garage, or farm it out and have them ship it to you.

“Kids at this school are experimenting making sculpture using this technology. There are free studio CAD design programs for 3-D modeling that you can download from the Internet. You can print a model for under $50. We’re doing it here.”

“In the field of metalsmithing, a lot of the artists have embraced 3-D technology: 3-D design, 3-D printing, laser cutting and all kinds of new strategies,” Browne said.

“Everyone in this show comes from a metalsmithing background. These are some of the best people in the field,” she added. “We also have emerging artists here, as well as people well-known in the field.

“What I wanted to show was not just the most ‘wow’ pieces, but the range of techniques, from people who just use new technology as a design element — like Kristin Beeler, who uses laser engraving to create scrimshaw on sterling and mother-of-pearl spoons — to those who’ve done the entire piece by digital processes, even to computer-aided manufacture.”

Jess Todd, one of Browne’s graduate students, is making cast silicone patches that can be attached to a person’s body after being printed in an exact copy of the person’s skin tone. The result looks a bit like traditional scarification, only without the pain. The possibilities from this creation range from simple body enhancement to creating a wearable QR code of your vital statistics that can be scanned.

Scotty, where’s my transporter?

Write to Dorothy Shinn at Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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